Gods and Monsters

Gods and Monsters

By Lamia Archer
Author's Notes

I am naked
Before you;
Look at me.
You came for me.
I pray to you.
You are in me . . .


You are my religion.
You are my religion.
I'm loving you;
You're loving me.
You are my religion.
You are my religion.
I'm touching you.
You're touching me . . .


You keep me real.
You lift me up.
Prayer soft,
I am in love.
Devotee of your immortal love.

You are my religion.

- Bif Naked, "Religion"

1. Divinity

If she hadn't been at a club, it probably wouldn't have happened. This particular club had a great dance floor, and a great DJ, and they made these great little pink cocktails to cool you off after dancing to the great DJ on the great dance floor . . . and Buffy may have had several. So many, in fact, that it was becoming difficult to see life as anything but . . . great.

"Modern day bacchanal."

Buffy turned to the rough voice behind her left shoulder. There was a grim-faced little man in a lumpy overcoat perched awkwardly on the stool beside her.

"Come?" she asked cautiously, dusting off one of her few Italian phrases.

"What I said, that was in English. So your response should be in English, particularly given the state of your Italian."

Buffy frowned. "Oh. So-huh?"

He gestured to the frenetic club bustling around them. "A bacchanal. A religious festival circa 200 B.C., held in honor of the god Bacchus. Drink, dance, and sex."

Buffy narrowed her eyes as best she could. "Is this a come on?"

The little man scoffed. "Don't flatter yourself."

Buffy frowned. "Then what-"

"You're the most radiant being in here, Buffy. This could be your bacchanal."

"This is a come on."

"Absolutely not. Let me buy you another drink."

He signaled the bartender and she accepted the crimson concoction warily, watching him over the rim as she took the first sip.

"Have you ever considered becoming a god?" he asked.

"All the time," she answered breezily. She fished the maraschino cherry out of her flamingo-pink drink and placed it, sticky-sweet and sensually smooth, onto her tongue.

"I can make you a god," he whispered.

Buffy closed her eyes just as her teeth closed down on the cherry's supple flesh, releasing a gush of unnatural sweetness into her waiting mouth. She felt flushed, with red, with sweat, and when she opened her eyes to the dazzling lights of the club, for a moment she saw it: bodies thrown away to ecstasy, worshipping pleasure, heady with common drugs and one another. She blinked, awed, and looked back to the strange little man beside her. She was shocked to see him changed too, no longer rumpled and graying but red-cheeked, glistening, huge and laughing.

"Whoa," she murmured. She reeled, overtaken with vertigo, and closed her eyes to recover. When she opened them again, the world was dark and her companion was small and hoary in his oversized overcoat again.

"I could be a god?" she asked, feeling around clumsily for her jacket. "Why not?"

What the hell, it was that kind of night. What was the worst that could happen?

Buffy woke in a strange room with the sun shining. Right in her face. She moaned and rolled out of its path to try and go back to sleep; it was then that her attention moved from Oh my God, sun in my face, why? to Crap. Strange hotel room. I didn't really go home with that little troll man, did I? She jumped out of bed and briefly gave herself the once over. She didn't feel violated. Maybe she'd just slept over and he'd been a perfect gentleman . . . yeah, right, that happened all the time.

But she felt fine. Her head didn't even hurt. Shouldn't she be hung over? And she was dressed still. That boded well.

There was noise coming from next door, and the connecting door was open; Buffy walked through, feeling not really great about it but taking it as her best bet. She wished she had a weapon. Yeah, a weapon would be really nice right now. A weapon, and, you know, not being in these kind-of-slutty leather pants, halter, and wobbly platform heels, and - oh yeah - not being here to begin with! That would be awesome.

The room next door looked a lot like the one she'd woken up in - really nice, for a hotel room, with creamy walls, picture windows, and a big bed - only backwards. The little troll guy from the club was sitting on the bed watching Italian television.

"Hey," Buffy said from the doorway.

He looked over at her. "Look who's awake."

She felt immensely uncomfortable, and wrapped her arms around herself. Memory check. She'd left the club, and they'd gotten into his - fairly nice; color her shocked, although if he could make her a god, then he could probably afford German engineering - car, and then . . . nothing. Blank, blank, blank. Bad. Very, very bad.

"How long have I been asleep?" she asked, not moving from her spot in the double doorway.

"A little over a month," he said, and looked back at the television. "Do you watch this? La Fattoria? They put all these rich people on a farm and make them do chores and things-"

"Yeah, Green Acres is the place to be." No comprehension dawned on his face and she frowned. "You don't dip into pop culture much, do you?"

"Not really, no."

She stepped into the room far enough to take the remote off the nightstand; she switched off the television so that he wouldn't be distracted from the issue at hand.

"What do you mean, I've been asleep for a month? That's a coma."

"That's a matter of opinion."

"You're playing with me. Tell me what happened."

He smiled. "I fulfilled your potential."

Buffy took another few steps towards him. "If you don't cut the cryptic really soon, I'm going to fulfill your-well, I'm going to hurt you. A lot."

"I made you a god. Just like I said I would."

Buffy stopped her progression.

"I'm a god," she said dully, her brow rising.

"That's right."

She broke into an ironic smile. "Of course! You didn't bring me back to your place to do dirty things to me while I was passed out; you did it to make me a god. Well, honest mistake; my apologies."

He was still smiling his unshakable smile; Buffy wanted to beat it off his face.

"What is a god?"

Buffy started to answer before she realized it was a rhetorical question; she snapped her mouth shut and bore the soliloquy with her arms crossed over her chest.

"A being of power. A being that is loved, worshipped . . . and feared. Are you not all these things?"

"I'm not worshipped," she mumbled, but she kind of liked the sound of it. She was powerful. And loved. And feared. To tell the truth, she was kind of awesome . . .

"Aren't you?" the little man asked encouragingly, rising from the bed and sidling up to her. "Don't the young new Slayers hold you in a special, revered regard, the oldest, most accomplished Slayer in history? And what about your lovers? Certainly you've been worshipped there-"

Buffy blushed. "That's none of your business."

She thought immediately, before she could help herself, of Angel bowing his head over her body, pressing kisses to her throat and chest like leaving offerings at an altar, looking up at her from his knees. Her name a litany on his tongue, her hair curled around his fingers like rosary beads. I love you I love you I love you blessmeforIhavesinned . . .

She blushed some more. "It's really none of your business."

The little man nailed her with a knowing look. "I believe I've made my point, though."

"Yeah, okay," Buffy relented. "You sold the theory. But you didn't sell me. Prove to me that I'm a god and not a date rape victim."

His snake smile widened. "You prove it."

She blinked. "Huh?"

"You're a god; you have power now. Power of influence, power of will. Make something happen."

"Like . . . a wish?"

"You're not a genie. You're not a fairy. You're not Barbara Eden in that little belly-baring number-"

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "I thought you weren't into pop culture."

"That one I liked. But my point is, you can't just wish for something to happen, or bob your head, and expect the world to change. You have to will it."

Buffy wrinkled her brow. "I don't get it."

He sighed. "You want something to happen? You have to want it to happen. You have to urge it to happen with all your mental might."

"Okay. I get it, kind of."

The little man looked very relieved. "Good. Want to give it a go?"

"Sure. What should I do?"

He smiled and gestured broadly. "Whatever you want. You're a god."

Buffy thought for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes and concentrated with all her might; she envisioned what she wanted in her head, a perfect, Technicolor, surround-sound picture.

She opened her eyes.

"You wished for clothes?" the little man asked skeptically.

Buffy grinned. "It worked!"

"Of course it worked; you're a god and that wasn't exactly moving the earth. You willed yourself new clothes?"

Buffy skipped happily to the bathroom so she could see herself in the mirror. It had worked! Her rumpled, slightly-less-than-demure club clothes were gone; she had a new - designer, how kick was that? - outfit that fully covered her. Yay!

"I can't believe that worked!" she said happily, preening in the mirror, as the little man's reflection joined hers.

"I still can't believe that, with incredible new power, you wished for a sundress."

Buffy shrugged him off. "My other outfit was kind of slutty, plus, the sleeping in it for weeks on end thing? Ew." She studied her reflection in the mirror. "Look, my hair looks all fresh, too! No split ends or anything! This is awesome!"

He sighed. "Has anyone ever called you vexing before?"

She tossed her hair to watch it move in the reflection. "All the time. Why?"

"No reason. Do you believe me now?"

She turned to him. Oh yeah, he was convincing her that she was a god now . . .

"Oh yeah, I totally forgot about that! This is so cool." She paused, studied his diminutive personage. "Are you a god, too? Cuz, you know, you could use some moisturizing-"

He frowned. "It doesn't really seem that important after the first thousand years."

Buffy's eyes widened. "Oh my God. Am I immortal?"

"Comes with the territory."

"That's-I don't know if I want to be immortal! You should have told me this before."

"You didn't ask."

"I was drunk! You took advantage of me!"

He shot her a look. She frowned.

"Well, okay," she said. "I guess immortality isn't the biggest suck. Can I be killed?"

"Yeah. But it takes a lot."

"Like . . . a silver bullet a lot, or-"

"No. Like, the Slayer healing thing?"

"Yeah?"

"Child's play."

She grinned. "Cool."

"You're stronger now, too. I think you'll have fun with this."

"Me too. Especially with the wishing thing-"

"It's not wishing," he insisted. "It's willing. And there are some restrictions."

She frowned. "Restrictions? Like, I'll get a time out if I-"

"No, like things it's physically impossible to do, so don't blow your brain out trying."

"Oh."

"You can mostly do little stuff; new clothes, make someone fall in love with you, change the weather, that kind of thing."

Buffy grinned. "I can change the weather?"

"Don't do it too much or people will get . . . spooked. But yeah, you can."

"That is so cool."

"You can't do big stuff, like-oh, say, moving a continent or raising the dead. Definitely no dead raising."

She nodded. "Yeah, already learned that lesson. But thanks for the tip."

"Any time."

"Really any time? Are you, like, my life coach?"

He frowned. "No. In fact, princess, our time together's pretty much over; I'm about to get off."

He collected his coat and headed for the door.

"Now? But I just . . . I just started! I don't know how to-but . . . but what do I do?"

He leveled a significant look at her. "Whatever you want."

He opened the door and started into the hallway. Buffy followed him.

"What do I do if I need help?"

"Whistle," he said dully.

"No, really-"

He sighed. "Just-you know how you willed those clothes on?"

"Uh-huh."

"Well, will me to be there. Concentrate really hard on my name, and I'll hear you, and I'll come if I can."

Buffy's bottom lip plumped into a pout. "I don't know your name."

"You can call me Dione. All right? Now go out and make your mark on the world, kid. Have some fun."

He left her standing in the hallway, incredibly powerful and all alone, hugging herself like an abandoned child.

After Buffy got over the oh, poor me aspect of everything, she realized that she'd been gone for over a month and that everyone, including Dawn, probably thought she was dead. She panicked, then forced herself to calm down, then panicked again, then went to the hotel telephone and called Dawn's dorm room. No answer. Dawn's cell phone. No answer.

Panicked again, Buffy ran out of the hotel and into the street on her way to Dawn's dorm before she realized there was probably an easier way. She ducked into an alleyway and closed her eyes.

Dawn, she thought. I want to be where Dawn is.

She concentrated on this thought, rolled it over and over in her head like a rosary bead, until finally she saw it: Dawn's laughing face, the bright sun, the great stone faces of the buildings on the lush, Italian campus she didn't have to pay for because Dawn was bright enough for scholarships out the wazoo. And then, as soon as she saw it, there was a tug somewhere below her navel and all the breath went out of her, she couldn't breathe; she felt herself being pulled below the undertow, only too fast and too hard, the jerk of a shark, but for miles.

And then it was over, in a second. Buffy blinked and the sun was shining on her face, and the world was green with leaves dripping from twisted trees, and she turned from the trees and a wall of old, old stone to see her little sister's eyes widen like she was seeing a ghost.

"Buffy?" she asked, her voice thin. The girl, who looked more grown up every day, Buffy could see changes just in the weeks since she'd last seen her, stood up and left her friends, came toward her sister. "Buffy, is that you?"

Buffy took Dawn in her arms before she could help herself. "Yeah. Yeah, it's me."

Dawn pushed her away. Her eyes were angry; her jaw was tight.

"Where have you been? We thought you were-" Her voice caught, and Buffy's heart ached.

"I'm sorry," Buffy said, and she was. God, she was. "It's a really long, really weird story-and I'll tell you the whole thing, right now if you want. Is there someplace we can talk?"

Buffy wondered if she should be worried by how easily Dawn accepted her story. She'd hardly accepted it that easily.

"Well, obviously it would be that," Dawn said breezily, murdering a gelato. "Either you were dead, or you ran off to elope, or you got turned into a god."

Buffy eyed her slyly, sipping her aranciata. "I can't tell whether you're making fun of me."

"No, totally not."

"So you've heard of this happening before."

"No, never."

Buffy sighed. "I thought it was . . . you know, insane, and then I saw I could do stuff. And then that made it kind of more real."

Dawn perked, grinning like she was twelve instead of - oh, god, almost twenty . . . well, in a year and a half, but still, how terrifying was that?

"What kind of stuff?"

Buffy played with her straw. "God stuff."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Well, duh, Buffy. Tell me about your cool new god stuff!"

Buffy felt a smile tugging at her lips in response to her sister's enthusiasm. "Like . . . powers."

"Yeah? What kind of powers?"

Buffy thought maybe an illustration would be better than a hypothetical at this juncture. Dawn's gelato suddenly regenerated itself.

The girl grinned.

"That is awesome. How did you do that?"

"I dunno. I just . . . I just kind of-you know, want it to happen, and it does."

"That is so cool. What else can you do?"

"Well, I found you, and then I was . . . there. Where you were, just like that." She frowned. "But . . . I don't really know. I don't know what I can do." Buffy studied her sister seriously. "You've really never heard of anything like this before?"

"Nope. But we tend to study demons, not deities."

The recently anointed deity sighed. "True." She ruminated unhappily for a moment, then decided to change tacks. "I'm so sorry for leaving you, Dawnie. I wouldn't have, but I was-"

"Incapacitated. You said. Forget about it; I can take care of-"

"Yourself," Buffy finished dryly. "I know. But I still worry."

"And I worry, too," Dawn said. "About you. And I knew you'd be really cranky at me in the event that you weren't dead, so Xander came up to stay with me. He's been worried about you too, by the way, and since he came all the way up here from Africa to worry about you, you'll probably have some 'splain' to do when we get home."

Buffy smiled.

Buffy hugged Xander before she even spoke. He looked shocked to see her, but he managed to look relieved before she started explaining. Then he looked shocked again.

"I see," he said lamely when she'd finished.

"About that," she said, grinning, holding his hands in hers. "There's been something . . . well, I have these god powers now, and there's something . . . well, there's something you really deserve, that I-well . . ."

She couldn't finish talking, so she just did it.

Xander looked a lot more shocked and was absolutely speechless as he removed his eye patch.

"Buffy," he whispered finally. "What happened to you?"

She laughed and hugged him.

The three of them cooked dinner in the apartment Buffy really didn't feel weeks gone from. It felt like home even with a yawning absence and a shuffle of family members, and she ate and listened to Dawn talk about boys and school and Xander talk about girls and Africa, and it was almost like nothing had changed. Except after dinner, while Xander did the dishes and Dawn cleaned up the table, she had to call Giles and Willow and a whole long list of other people that she loved and tell them that she wasn't dead.

"Are you going to go home soon?" Dawn asked Xander once Buffy had finished her oh-so-creepy task.

The three of them settled on the balcony, watching the sky get black, and Xander and Buffy had wine and Dawn complained about not being old enough, even though oh my God, that is so American, in Italy she was totally old enough to drink. Buffy wasn't feeling good anymore, even though everyone she'd talked to had been overjoyed to hear her voice.

"I'll probably head back in a couple days, yeah," Xander said, watching the night get inky, narrowing both eyes in an attempt to pick out stars as they appeared. He had twenty-twenty vision again. "Unless you ladies need me here for anything."

"I've really liked having you here, but I think we'll be fine," Dawn said. "Right, Buffy?"

Buffy was sitting on the cool deck of the balcony, staring at the red tide of her wine. It felt warm in her chest and cheeks, but she didn't feel warm anywhere else. She felt leaden, difficult, like an object.

"Yeah," she said, forcing her plastic mouth to form the gummy, human words. "We'll be fine, Xand. You should get back to your Slayer and your African women. We'll be fine."

It was Xander's ears, not his sharp eyes, that picked up that his friend might not be telling the truth, but he looked anyway.

"You get a hold of everyone today, Buff?" he asked in lieu of asking how she was.

"Yeah, I think so," she said numbly. "Willow, Giles, you're pretty much told, Faith, Ang-" She stopped, a chill rising through her body. "I forgot to call Angel."

She looked to Dawn. "Has he-I mean, he hasn't . . . he hasn't called or anything, right? And have you . . . would he have heard all the way over there, have the demons of Rome been getting wise and why have the two of you gotten all Tin Man-y?"

Xander looked into the dark sea of his wine like he was scrying for answers in there, and Dawn studied her fingernails intently. Immediately, Buffy felt warm and human again as an inferno of fear burned through her like a burst of backfire exploding through a building.

"What happened?" she asked quietly, coming to her feet.

She hadn't meant to ask quietly. She'd meant to demand, but her voice had been lost in the fire.

"There was-there was a . . . a thing . . . a couple weeks ago . . . right about the same time you disappeared. A battle," Dawn said quietly, her hands folding in her lap. Her head bowed, her long hair falling obscuring her face, she looked like a little girl again. "We thought-at first we thought that maybe you'd gone to LA to . . . to help him. But the timing was a little off; the thing in LA started a couple days before you disappeared, although it was . . . it was later that we started to hear about it; we didn't hear about it until you'd been gone a few days, but . . . but we were sure . . . we were sure you would have told us-" Dawn's big eyes implored her sister. "You would have, wouldn't you; you wouldn't have just run off?"

"Of course not, Dawnie," Buffy reassured her, forcing her voice to be calm and soothing, even though her insides were screaming for release, for an answer.

"A bunch of people died, and it took out, like, a whole city block," Xander filled in. "It was on the news, even here."

"It was Angel?"

Xander's face was grim. "Wolfram and Hart wasn't near the main site of the damage, but they got taken out, too, so we're all thinking yeah. And we tried to contact him, and we haven't been able to get anything. From him or any of his people. Faith went out there and combed the wreckage the first couple days after, but she didn't find anything-"

Buffy could hear Dawn saying something about how that didn't mean anything, about how he could still be alive, and then the girl's voice faded into a blur. She should be listening. She was the big sister, and maybe Dawn needed to be comforted, but she couldn't. There was nothing but the pain in her chest and the noise in her head, the insistent refrain: He's dead, he's dead, he'sdeadhe'sdeadHE'SDEAD

Buffy didn't realize she was falling until she felt the cool deck of the balcony again, until she felt the cool tiles slick under her palms and face, slick with her tears. Somewhere, she heard Dawn cry out, felt Xander's strong arms curling around her to bring her up from her knees, but it was all periphery.

He's dead.

2. Caution Do Not Enter

"I have to go out there."

Apparently, Xander would never forget that Buffy, what do you see in that guy? expression.

"You have got to be kidding me. He's dead, Buffy."

Buffy recoiled as though he'd hit her, and she could see the apology on his face, almost immediately.

"I'm sorry," he said. "But you just got back; you can't leave Dawn-"

"Of course she can," Dawn said. "This is important, and I can take care of myself."

"Besides, you're here to take care of her," Buffy said, pulling in the penance chip while Xander was still feeling guilty.

He sighed. "So you're just going to go out there, not knowing what you'll find-"

"Yes. Because it's worth it. He's worth it."

Buffy desperately wanted to just throw her being to the phenomenal newfound power of her will and go to where Angel was the way she had found Dawn. But she forced herself to think rationally, and realized, a clawing inevitable terror like drowning, that he might be dead, and that willing herself to follow him in that instance would be a mortal mistake at best and a terrifying nightmare if her immortality preserved her. So instead, she willed herself to Los Angeles, to the battleground that had left a crater in the earth.

Buffy felt the strange pull, the nameless power tugging at her strings and flinging her across time and space, a god now, but still a tiny marionette to someone out there. After the rush of color and vertigo, she came to, reeling slightly, in a junkyard of concrete. She could hear car engines growling, horns howling, the usual background disquiet of any thriving modern cityscape, but the scene before her more closely resembled a third world disaster site. The asphalt was depressed in a great crater almost a block long, with huge slabs and small boulders jutting out along the edges. Buffy squinted, and she could almost make out the shape of a great fallen beast. From nowhere, a word crystallized whispersoft in her ear: Dragon. Buffy shook her head, shook the unbidden utterance off. She was feeling strange, weak . . . maybe from her trip? Because it was so much further than Dawnie's school? Maybe this god stuff wasn't as easy as she'd thought. . . . This divine super powers stuff really should come with a handbook; stupid Dione. Anyway, having weird words popping into her head from nowhere wasn't helping her get back to good.

Several of the surrounding buildings had taken severe hits, and bricks spilled out over the street, which glittered with broken glass, shards large as blades and small as diamonds. It had been a month, they'd told her, and all this was still here. The city was keeping it as . . . what? A reminder? A warning? A testament? Maybe the city workers were just backed up, on other important jobs; she spied some yellow Caution Do Not Enter tape looped haphazardly around the perimeter of the wreckage, but it didn't look as if anything else had been done. Buffy's chest ached. She spied, with the keen sense of a hunter, without even looking for it, without looking hard, that there was still blood anointing the ground. She saw roses of it blooming hidden beneath scatterings of bricks, looming broken slabs of asphalt.

It must have rained, she thought, and washed the rest away.

After almost a decade as a Slayer, Buffy knew how to find demons. She almost gravitated towards them, and they seemed attracted to her, too. It was perverse but true. So she didn't have to look for a demon-infested neighborhood near the battleground: her feet naturally led her there, like the ground was sloped in that direction, like she was being pulled by a magnetic attraction.

Weasely little snitches who hemorrhaged information before they'd suffer actual blood to be spilt, she was great at scaring them up, too. It was like a sixth sense.

She found her pigeon in a shady little magic-and-pawn shop in her demon barrio. She knew before entering the establishment that it would be ripe for the picking - any place that had "Yes, we pay cash for your entrails!" on the window was rife with desperate - but when she saw the guy manning the counter inside, her day got a little happier. He was a half-human demon-hybrid - a Byasa, if she wasn't mistaken . . . but she got mistaken all the time, and maybe that was that herbal drink that was supposed to cure prostate cancer . . . okay, Buffy, focus - and scrawny, definitely the runt of the litter. Definitely the kind of guy she wanted for her patsy.

"Help you?" the little Byasa asked.

Buffy smiled and strolled confidently up to the counter. It was a standard pawnshop setup: a long glass counter that ran almost the entire length of the room, with only a small opening for the clerk to pass through. It allowed optimal viewing of merchandise - which was somewhat different from that found in a standard pawnshop; Buffy saw a glass jar full of eyeballs and . . . well, some fake Rolex's; that was probably pretty standard - and would also be really, really effective for proving her point should the clerk be less than cooperative come interrogation time.

"I need some information."

The clerk shuffled nervously to a far end of the counter and started to look busy by polishing the glass with a rag so dingy it defeated the purpose.

"One thing we don't deal in."

"Luckily, I wasn't planning on paying for it," Buffy said cheerfully.

The Byasa looked up at her strangely. "Then why would I want to tell you anything?"

Buffy skipped happily over to his new location. "So I don't have to beat the skinny out of you. See how that works?"

He stopped his useless task, froze slowly. As a natural victim, he was uneasy by nature. But maybe not stupid.

"You?" he asked finally, studying her. "But you're-"

"The Slayer," she finished for him seamlessly. "Would you like a demonstration?"

He sighed, his shoulders slumping. "What do you want?"

She beamed. "That was easy! No pummeling even. This is turning out to be a nice day, um-what did you say your name was?"

"I didn't. And it's Percival."

"Bummer. Okay, Percy, first thing's first: what's the deal with the mini-disaster zone you guys have got going a few blocks over? Why hasn't the city covered that up yet?"

He eyed her. "You know what-"

"Yeah, I know what happened. But why are the cops and the mayor and everybody just letting it sit there?"

"They're claiming it's a terrorist attack. Some citizens - human citizens - were killed, and enough people noticed that they can't shut it up. They saw the bodies - the non-human bodies, so the local powers are claiming that more people died in a terrorist attack on the city. And they're leaving it up-"

"As a shrine." Buffy closed her eyes. "That's perfect. Just great."

Percival grinned. "I think it's brilliant."

She sighed. "Demons. Fine. Okay, the other thing . . . it'll be harder, but it's also more important, and - just warning you - when I get testy, I get violent, so let's be quick and concise with our answers, okay, Percy? One of the guys involved in the so-not-a-terrorist-attack . . . ? He's a . . . well, I need to . . . I need to find him. Or . . . if he's dead, I need to know that, I just need-"

"You need a lot," Percival said dryly.

Buffy glared. "Did I not mention the violence?"

He held up his hands in self-defense. "Sorry. Got a name?"

She folded her arms around herself.

"Angel," she said softly.

"The vampire?" he asked in disbelief. "That guy?"

"Yeah. You know who he is?"

"Yeah. Everyone knows who he is; it's kind of his town."

She sighed. "Of course it is. Do you know-"

"Where he is? I'm not his mother-" He must have caught the look on Buffy's face, because he began to amend his statement with amazing celerity. "-but I can probably find out for you. I'll call some people. Now. Right now."

He dashed off to the back of the shop, leaving Buffy alone with the unnerving merchandise and her brooding. Since she wanted to take her mind off the latter, she walked along the case, trying to distract herself with pawned jewelry (so fake) and monkey heads (ew). And then she came across something that made her stop. Something that made her whole body lurch.

"What is this?" she asked quietly when Percival came back out to the front from his phone calls.

"So I-what?"

"What is it?" she demanded. She was staring down at the object in the case, her body rioting, her nails gripping into her arms hard enough to send spikes of pain through the flesh . . . but it was necessary, so she didn't smash through the glass and liberate the object, claim it.

Percival unlocked the back of the case she was standing before.

"Which-" He stopped. "Oh. Hey, look at that."

He removed the item she was looking at, and placed it on top of the counter in front of her. Close enough for her to touch. She looked down at the faded mat and felt coils of pain twist through her stomach; it was hard to breathe.

"What is it?" she asked for the third time. She was fairly certain she was going to go mad if she didn't receive an answer soon.

Percival flipped the mat up and removed a card from the back of it. He squinted reading it.

"From the Order of the Black Thorn - they're, um, big bad guys around here - headquarters . . . we cleaned them out after your friend killed them all, got all sorts of cool stuff . . . Shanshu Prophecy. Don't accept less than $5000."

"Why does it have Angel's name on it?" she demanded, unable to take her eyes off the red scrawl, unable to breathe. "In his handwriting?"

Percival shrugged. "I dunno-um, we always have new stuff appraised when we bring good stuff in from estates like that, but my boss deals with all that stuff; I just work the counter-"

"Find out," she growled, her eyes flashing dangerously.

"Oooookay," the little Byasa said, and dashed back to the phone before Buffy could toss him through the display case.

He'd left the prophecy lying on top of the glass, right within Buffy's reach. Buffy let her hands hover over it, her fingertips dusting across the elegant bloody swirl of characters that meant Angel. He'd touched this. He'd been here, this had been, maybe, the last thing he'd ever written. His name. Not, "Dear Buffy, by the way: I'm going on a suicide mission without telling you or asking you for backup, because I'm a stupid, stupid ass, and I just thought you should know."

His name. I am.

Maybe it was kind of appropriate.

"Boss man says that this prophecy thing tells about a whole bunch of, you know-"

"Prophecies?" Buffy guessed dryly.

"Yeah. But the Shanshu one is about Angel," Percival said, and then continued with the stilted, stiff pace of a schoolboy reciting figures. "It says that after the Apocalypse he's supposed to become human-"

Buffy's heart stopped beating. She was sure it did. Human. Angel was going to be human. He could go out in the sun and make love without worrying about going on a murderous rampage and he would be warm and be able to taste things and-

"-but the shaman guys who appraise this stuff for us, they said that . . . that there was some spell put on it, sealed with his signature there, that . . . um, what's the-oh, negated it. I mean, I totally get it; being a vampire is much cooler than being a lame human. Demons kind of rock." Percival puffed out his concave chest a little. "If I do say so myself."

Buffy stared at Angel's signature, the new crimson swirl glaring out from among the ancient, faded text. He'd given it away? He couldn't have . . . she didn't understand.

She felt weak.

"Anyway," he continued, "My friend Raj down at the Lotus Blossom Pleasure Salon-"

Buffy's lip curled; she managed to be disgusted even through her shock. "Nice."

"Hey, it's a reputable business! Anyway, Raj has connections, and he called a few people for me, and he says this guy Ixchel-"

Buffy raised her brow. "Guy?"

"Okay. Demon. But anyway, he's seen your friend."

The weight on Buffy's heart lifted. A little. "He has? Angel's alive?"

"If this guy's to be trusted, and most people don't lie to Raj, because he controls their sn-"

"You don't need to expand on that; I get it. Where is he?"

Percival grinned. "That's really hot; I've never met such a sexy les-"

Buffy slammed both hands on the counter; it shook a little, but didn't break. Percival jumped back half a foot.

"Not the pimp. Angel."

"Oh. Um, well, Ixchel works graveyard at this drugstore in South Central, right, and he said the vampire's come in a couple times. Bought bandages and stuff. Says he looks not good."

"But he's alive," Buffy repeated.

"Yeah," the little demon said, his voice softening.

Buffy nodded. "Okay. I'll need an address. I'm going to see your friend."

"Okay," Percival said agreeably, visibly glad that she was going somewhere else.

Buffy scooped up the Shanshu Prophecy. It was so light in her hand; she felt like it should weigh more.

"I'm taking this."

The Byasa was somewhat less agreeable about this.

"Whoa," he said, coming around the other side of the counter, facing Buffy off without a barrier. "I can't just let you walk out of here with that; my boss'll kill me-"

"I'll kill you if you try to stop me," Buffy said dispassionately. "And I don't mean that in the way where I'll yell at you and maybe dock your paycheck. I mean that in the way where, at the end of our confrontation, you're on the floor not alive anymore, and I walk out of here with this prophecy."

Percival sighed. "Man . . ."

Buffy smiled thinly. "Good decision. That address?"

Buffy thought briefly about willing herself to Angel's locale, now that she knew he was actually on this plane of existence, but then she realized she didn't want to. She didn't want to just appear there . . . and she needed some time to . . . mull. She decided on taking a cab to Percy's pimp's friend's drugstore; that would give her time to think. Brood. Whatever.

Buffy sank down in her seat and spread the Shanshu Prophecy out in her lap. She studied the strange, ancient markings for a while, but her eyes kept drifting back to Angel's signature. Over and over again. How could he have given it up? She closed her eyes and imagined seeing him in the sunlight, imagined wrapping her arms around a warm, human Angel and getting drunk on a kiss that she could allow herself to get lost in. She thought she'd lost these dreams, but apparently some things never changed. She hadn't realized how badly she still wanted it until she'd heard that he would never be human, but she realized now that some part of her had always had a stupid, childish hope that one day Angel would get tapped by a fairy's magic wand and turn into a real boy, and the two of them could live happily ever after.

Hot tears ran down her cheeks. She pushed them away angrily, opening her eyes, then got her compact out of her purse and hurriedly attempted to fix her makeup. Stupid. This was stupid. This whole thing was stupid. She was not a little girl anymore, and those dreams were as dead as her ex-lover. If Angel didn't want to be human, he obviously didn't want her. She was not going to see him to . . . to kiss him, or fall into his arms, or . . . or any of that. She was not some lovesick little girl. She was a god, for Christ's sake; she was better than these games. She would just go and see if he was all right, and then she would leave, for good leave, and go out and get the things she wanted. Just like Dione had said.

In South Central, in the cleanest motel room a hundred dollars a week could rent, Angel woke up gasping. His body was alive with pain as air was forced into lungs still scorched with the smoke of dragon's breath, as his long-dormant heart started pumping blood through bruised veins. His empty stomach churned; he ran to the bathroom to wretch into the toilet. Nothing came up, and he went to the sink and splashed some cold water on his face to try and calm his body, to still the pain.

On the way up for a towel, he caught his reflection in the mirror.

He didn't move for a long time.

It was hours before the graveyard shift started when Buffy found the address Percival had given her, but she showed up expecting information anyway. She really doubted that the dark, sullen, thoroughly human kid manning the register was Ixchel, but he might know something about Angel, and that was all she cared about.

"I need some information," she said, sidling up to the counter. The store was dismal, the lighting dim and flickering, the wares sparse and possibly from shipments leftover from the sixties. Buffy was a little concerned about Angel buying first aid supplies here . . . and then she wasn't. She wasn't caring. She was actively not caring.

The kid just stared dourly back at her, and, when she failed to lay down any merchandise for him to dutifully ring up, thus satisfying his job requirements, he went back to ignoring her. Buffy was slightly perplexed by his utter muteness until she realized he had antennae dripping from his ears.

"Oh," she said dumbly, and indelicately yanked the trailing white cords out.

"Damn!" the kid said, roused to passion by the sudden pain and the fact that he was no longer distracted by his iPod. "What the hell, bitch!"

"Do I have your attention now?" she asked pleasantly.

The kid rubbed his ears resentfully. "Damn. Yeah, fine! Damn!"

"I need some information," she repeated. "There's a guy that lives around here, comes in here sometimes. He's about six feet tall, well-built, good-looking . . . well, you know, not that I care . . . because I don't . . . it's not that I'm really thinking of him that way, because I am so over that-his name is Angel. Someone told me he's been buying bandages and stuff like that here. Seen him?"

The kid raised his brow interestedly. "You gonna make it worth my while?"

Buffy smiled sweetly. "Would you like to see what else I can do with that iPod?"

He sighed. "I ain't seen him, anyway."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"

"Like I keep my eyes peeled for good-looking white guys."

She stuck her hand on her hip. "When does Ixchel come in?"

"That freak? Fuck, bad enough working with the rollers and all them we get in here, without having to deal with that kinda shit, scales and shit-"

"I didn't ask for a social commentary. If you can't tell me anything about Angel, you'd better tell me something about Ixchel, or I'm going to get violent. And creative."

The kid frowned. "Eleven, ai'ight? Damn, you one pushy, testy bitch."

"I get things done."

He didn't look impressed by her assessment.

"Eleven's too long to wait," Buffy mused. "As you said, I'm pushy and testy; I don't like standing around not doing anything. Where's Ixchel live?"

"Bitch, I don't know; I'm not up in his business-"

"Well, get in his business, or I'll spend the long hours until his shift starts getting in yours. I'm sure his address is here somewhere, in his employee file or something."

The kid sighed and shuffled off. Buffy felt rather pleased with herself; the afternoon was progressing smoothly.

Angel had finally regained enough presence of mind to move before the mirror. When he moved, the reflection moved. Tentatively, he brought his fingers to the glass; the identical image did the same, forming an infinite loop of Angel.

Angel's heart fluttered wildly - it fluttered. It fluttered because it was beating and he was alarmed and it was beating - and then he was finally, abruptly sick.

Shocked by the violent sensation of his body's revolt, of the taste of the acidic bile erupting up his throat - the taste - Angel stayed for a long moment bent over the sink, breathing in harsh, long breaths before righting himself and rinsing the watery bile down the pipes.

He was before the mirror again.

"What the-I-fuc-what . . . ?"

He felt weak, too weak to stand, and he slowly lowered himself to the tile floor, tearing himself away from his reflection. The tiles were cool against his skin. They were always cool - vampires could register temperature - but now he was burning up and they felt freezing against his febrile flesh.

"This is insane," he said out loud, and then realized that it was more insane to be talking aloud to himself.

He - at first fleetingly, to check to make sure it was true, and then longer, indulgently - rested his hand over his heart, felt his pulse pound through his palm. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, felled.

"There is no reward," he whispered. "There is nothing. I don't understand."

"Are you a Girl Scout or something?" the scaly, couldn't-pass-for-human-if-his-life-depended-on-it Sber-Rossii demon asked as he opened the door to Buffy's smiling face. "It's a little early for cookies, I think. Anyway, I never buy any; I'm trying that new South Beach diet, you know, no carbs-"

"Luckily, for you, I'm looking for information, not peddling pastries. You Ixchel?"

He nodded warily. Buffy blocked the door with a Manolo before he could shut her out.

"Good!" she said chipperly, as though she hadn't noticed his attempt to slam the door in her face. "I have a few questions for you."

He frowned, but didn't try closing the door again.

"You work at that skeevy drugstore by Crazy Dave's Liquor Emporium, right? I noticed the name because, you know, how would you forget a name like that-"

"Yeah, I work there. And as for ‘skeevy,' where else am I going to find a job above ground with a face like this?"

Buffy gave him the once over. "Good point. You're blessed. Anyway, this guy Percy at a similarly skeevy pawn shop, he says you've seen a guy named Angel around during your shift."

"The vampire. Sure. He a friend of yours, or are you hunting him down? Because that guy's serious bad news, lady-"

"He's . . . a friend. Or-well, he used to be. I need to get in touch with him. Do you know where he lives?"

"We did some deliveries for him, a few weeks ago when he was in really bad shape, so his address is at the store."

Buffy swore.

"He's at - I didn't make the delivery; I mean . . . look at me; I couldn't - but he's at some hotel near Crenshaw, under the name Manny Balestrero."

Buffy's brow rose. "You remember the name he was staying under?"

Ixchel laughed. "You're not a Hitchcock fan."

"Huh?"

"Manny Balestrero was Henry Fonda's character in The Wrong Man. I thought it was funny, him picking that. Like an actress staying under Holly Golightly . . . which you're not going to get either, so let me just go inside and call the store, and I'll get you Mr. Balestrero's address."

Buffy waited impatiently on the porch. Stupid Angel and his stupid old movies. Stupid random demon for understanding Angel's reference well when she didn't. Stupid-he wouldn't have the balls to leave like that, would he? No, he totally wouldn't. He was coming back with an address, or she was kicking the door down and doing a little late afternoon slaying.

Stupid, stupid Angel, causing all this trouble.

She was going to cause him some trouble.

After about twenty minutes grounded on the cold tile floor, Angel was able to stand up again. Shakily, but his body found stability. He used the sink for balance, which brought him in front of the mirror again.

Reflection. For another long moment, he just stared at the foreign image of his face in the dirty glass. He brought his fingers to his face, and by touch he knew the country, but by sight it was completely new to him. It was strange and terrifying and wonderful, and he felt short of breath.

Short of breath.

He had to sit down on the floor for another few minutes.

When he was finally able to get up again, he skipped the mirror and walked out into the cramped main body of his motel room. He had hurt his left leg very badly in the fight Wolfram and Hart had sent for him, and he still limped terribly, but he walked as fast as he could to the small windows his room offered. As soon as he reached the windows, he pushed aside the blackout curtains he kept over them day and night and opened the glass to the city outside.

The sun. The sun was shining. He could feel it on his skin and he could . . . he swore he could smell it, gold and butter.

Angel closed his eyes and smiled.

The motel Ixchel sent her to was shitty. There was no way in getting around it; it reminded Buffy of a rape/homicide. She wondered why in God's name Angel would stay there, until she reminded herself that Angel was able to live on blood and air and that not having cable probably didn't faze him.

She folded her arms around herself as she walked through the hallways; being the Slayer, never mind being a god, never got you past the way you felt being a girl walking through a place like this. They're going to find me on the evening news, I know they are . . . She supposed it was all the things her mother had said to her about walking alone at night, and the way that the men she saw looked at her, like she was walking naked, or like she should have been; like, because of her sex and because of theirs, she was supposed to open her coat up and let them have a nice look in deference as she passed.

God, she was going to punish Angel for making her go through this.

She made it to his room without being raped or murdered, which should have been the hard part. But it wasn't. She couldn't seem to move another step further: she just stood there, staring at the faded numbers tacked onto the door face, trying to summon the strength to raise her hand to knock.

She was about to turn away in cowardice when the door opened from in front of her and she was met with Angel's beautiful, sudden visage.

This was stupid. Why had she thought this was a good idea, showing up on his doorstep the way she was always furious at him for showing up on hers? And why didn't he ever get any worse looking-though, God, he looked hurt; Ixchel and Percy had not been kidding. His shirt was open and she could see a loop of bandages hugging his middle, the shadows of bruises kissing his face like smudged lover's lipstick. He was quite obviously keeping the weight off his left leg.

But Christ, he looked good.

"Buffy," he said, and he sounded good, too. His voice, his beautiful velvet voice that haunted her dreams, ran fleet fingers across her spine, all the way down to her . . . other places. Other places may have been affected.

And then he laughed, and it wasn't a happy laugh, and something ugly and pained flickered across his lovely dark eyes, and she snapped out of her spell.

"Of course," he said. "You would show up today."

She was stung, and it helped her along in her decision to keep the gloves off.

"Well, I was just doing my normal survey of lying idiots who don't send me an update for a year, go on a suicide mission without telling me, and then let me think they're lying in a crater dead, and your name popped up. I'll be gone in a minute."

Angel's cheeks hollowed dramatically.

"You wanna watch yourself," he warned.

"I don't think I need to take orders from you, General Kamikaze. I've been moving up in the world while you've been out here killing your troops-"

Angel hit her. It was immediate: a quick, open-handed smack across the face, the way a man will hit a woman, but never another man. He hit her once and then watched her stumble slightly on her impractical heels. His hand was shaking slightly and he was breathing a little bit too fast, but there was so much pressure on his chest, weighing down on his heart, that he felt like he couldn't breathe at all.

Buffy's face throbbed. She forced back tears; she was a warrior and she was thrown around, hit constantly, but it was a different thing entirely to be punched by an enemy than slapped by the man you used to love. She stayed doubled over for much longer than she actually needed to, under the premise of finding her balance but actually searching for her composure.

When she straightened, she expected him to apologize, but he didn't. He just stared at her, drawn, his dark eyes holding so much betrayal that for a moment she wondered if she'd gotten things turned around, if she'd hit him.

"You hit me," she said, and then she felt stupid for saying it.

"Asshole," she added, but she didn't feel any better about that.

"You should probably leave," Angel said softly. He lowered his eyes; that was it, there. There was the apology.

"Maybe-maybe you should leave," Buffy said weakly, thus skipping over all chances at being the mature party.

"I live here," Angel replied quietly.

"Well-shut up," she said. She looked around the dank hallway. "Why do you live here, Angel? I wouldn't be murdered here."

He looked up. "I wouldn't have you murdered anywhere."

She frowned. "You can't smack me and then be sweet to me, Angel. Also, you didn't answer my question."

He didn't say anything for a moment. Then: "Why don't you come in, and I'll get you something for your cheek."

"That's also you avoiding my question."

"I don't need much. And this isn't much. Are you coming in?"

Buffy was almost certain she shouldn't, but she let Angel shepherd her into his motel room anyway.

She took a seat on his bed - not the safest place, historically, but there were only two rooms, the bedroom and the bathroom, and the only other piece of furniture was the nightstand, so bed it was - while he fooled around in the bathroom.

"You mean this place has running water?" she called. "Color me stunned."

He came out of the bathroom frowning. "Your wit's improved."

He handed her a washcloth damp with cool water. She took it and placed it awkwardly to her burning face. It stung, and she flinched.

"I can't believe you hit me," she muttered darkly.

"You deserved it," he said, coming to sit beside her on the bed.

She raised her brow. "Like some womenfolk deserve to be hit sometimes? Good attitude you've cultivated."

Angel was unflappable. "You'll notice that's not what I said. What I said was, ‘You deserved to be hit right then.'"

She glowered. Angel sighed.

"Look, I'm sorry," he said. "Not that I hit you, because I still believe you deserved that, but that we have to have a bad start . . . pretty much every single time we ever see one another."

Buffy relaxed, and brought the washcloth down from her face, let her hands fall to her lap.

"I'm sorry, too." She looked up to Angel's serious, sad face. "So what did happen during that whole Let's Put a Hole in LA thing?"

Angel looked away. "With the exception of my son, everyone I love was killed."

A stab of nausea ice-picked through her. "Oh, Angel, I'm so sorr-your son?"

He turned back to her. "We've been apart a long time, huh? A lot's changed."

She nodded remorsefully. "Yeah. Speaking of, Angel-"

"There's something I need to tell you," he interrupted, the precedents for which she could count on one hand.

She sat and listened, but he couldn't seem to get any words out. Finally, he took one of the hands from her lap and brought it to his breastbone.

Angel wished he knew how to do CPR, because he was afraid Buffy was going to need it soon.

"What . . . how . . . I-what?" she squeaked.

"I don't know," he said excitedly. He dropped his hands from hers, but she just let her palm stay there in the dip of his sternum, drinking in the music of his pulse. But how . . . ? "I just woke up earlier this afternoon and I was alive, like-you know, human alive-"

Buffy paled.

"This afternoon?" she repeated wanly.

Angel was talking a mile a minute, which, under normal circumstances, would have been very disconcerting. This year, however, it lost the title to the insistent throb under Buffy's hand.

"Yeah, just a few hours before you showed up, which is why I wasn't really all that surprised to see you, because I figure, one weird turn deserves another-"

Buffy pouted. "You think I'm weird?"

"Huh? No, that's not what I meant. I just meant, it was weird to wake up human; it's weird to see you out of nowhere-"

Buffy was unable to keep a leash on her incredibly guilty look. "I don't think it's weird. I think it's . . . not even a coincidence. I think it's my fault."

Angel didn't understand. "What's your fault?"

"Your-your humanity. I think I did it."

Angel's brow rose. "You made me human."

"I think so."

He stared at her incredulously.

"Well, here's the thing," Buffy said earnestly. "You know how we have a lot to tell each other?"

"Uh-huh," Angel said slowly.

"I'm kind of a god."

"A god," Angel repeated skeptically.

"Well, yeah!" Buffy defended herself, coming to her feet so that she could be a little more commanding. "I mean, lately I am. It was-well, it was kind of a mistake and I may have been a little drunk, but now I'm a god."

"You're a god," he repeated.

She frowned. "Stop doing that! Here, I'll prove it."

She looked at the only other piece of furniture in the room, the bedside table. There was a novel and a sad little lamp on it. Angel was probably fond of the novel.

"You're not . . . attached to that lamp, right?"

Angel regarded her without comprehension. "What?"

"That lamp. You don't really-"

"It doesn't work," he said dully.

She wrinkled her brow. "How do you read in here?"

He smiled. "I can see in the dark." Something struck him and he smiled bigger. "Well, I could. Before."

She rolled her eyes. "Okay. Well, a broken lamp should be easy enough. Okay, check this out."

Buffy willed the lamp to turn on. After a second - come on, willing a stupid light bulb to light was so beneath her - the lamp flickered to life.

Angel sat up very straight.

"How did you-"

"Hello, god," she said.

He stared at her.

"So, anyway, I'm a god now, and I may have accidentally willed you to become human."

Angel stared at her.

"Say again," he asked quietly after a long moment.

She squirmed. "Well . . . I was on the way over here, and . . . well, the way I make things happen is by thinking about them really hard, and kind of . . . kind of wishing really hard that they'd happen? And I was sitting in the cab on the way to your place thinking about how much I used to wish you were human, and I . . . I may have accidentally . . ."

She bit her bottom lip, silencing herself.

Angel stared at her.

Buffy began to feel flustered with his eyes on her. When she was flustered, something horrible happened to her: she babbled. "Anyway, I'm sorry, because I know you didn't really want to be human-"

Angel straightened. "Excuse me?"

Buffy wondered what would happen if she willed herself to disappear.

"Well . . . you signed that shoeshine thing so that you wouldn't have to become human . . ."

She ran and got it out of her purse so that she would have a respite from his eyes on her.

She really, really wished she hadn't, as soon as she saw his face the moment he laid eyes on the Shanshu Prophecy.

"Where did you get that?" he asked. His voice was quiet, deadly, a stealthy asp.

She trembled. "I-"

He rose and walked toward her. "Buffy, where did you get it?"

"A pawnshop. Nowhere."

His eyes fell to it. His whole body fell, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

"The Powers were supposed to make me human," he said softly. "If they forgave me . . . when I'd done enough to be forgiven . . . they were supposed to make me human. I had to sign away that chance to infiltrate the Black Thorn." He laughed bitterly. "To murder my family." Buffy could almost see the reflection of the prophecy in his sad, sad eyes. "And if you gave me this . . . ? Then I'll never be forgiven."

"Angel-"

She reached out to him, to soothe some of the pain from his face. He looked up abruptly before she reached him, grabbed her harshly by the wrist.

For a brief moment, Buffy felt a thrill of fear, and thought that Angel would hit her again.

And then she took another second to read the look in his eyes and the hold of his jaw and knew, before he moved, before he breathed, that she was very, very wrong.

Angel took her wrist and used it to pull her body against his. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and crushed his mouth to hers. His mouth was hot. She was used to icy kisses from him, but now his mouth scorched hers, and she was shocked, confused, unsure of how to adjust to this new climate. His whole body was different. She knew this man - they'd only made love once, but she'd traveled his body a million times in her dreams - but he was so warm, and she found the novelties of his pulse and his breathing almost distracting. She got bewildered, dizzy, just from the kiss, and the Shanshu Prophecy fell from her hand. She heard it fall to the floor; she could hear the muffled noise as it hit the carpet, but insulated, like it was coming from the next room. The only real, concentrated sensations were with Angel, and they felt almost too bright, Technicolor.

She thought, somewhere, Why is he doing this? He's mad at me, but at the same time she found herself sliding his shirt from his shoulders and fumbling with his belt, struggling out of her jacket, her tank top. Angel was twisting her like the leads always seem to do to dancers in children's movies, just round and round the floor in concentric circles, and before she could realize the steps, she was back on the bed with his mouth buried in her throat, her breasts, pressing to hers like he needed oxygen.

Buffy remembered once, when she was in high school, getting into what she'd thought then was dangerous territory with him one night, and Angel folding against her and whispering, "God, you're so warm." And that was all she could think now, how warm he was, how hot he was everywhere, his breath on her skin, his febrile flesh against hers, his scorching mouth everywhere. She couldn't imagine how hot she must have been to a vampire, because he was burning her up. She had been with human men before, but this was different, because it was Angel, and it was insane for him to be warm like this. God, he was so warm, and the tattoo of his pulse was beating at a tempo that was vibrating right through to her cunt, she swore it was. Every time he rested against her long enough for his heartbeat to echo through her, she cried out; she had never, ever been this turned on, not in her entire life. She didn't care if it was weird: that was just how she felt. If she could have fucked him while he was hooked up to a goddamn EKG, she would have done it.

Meanwhile, there were practical matters. She didn't know how hurt his leg was, but she wanted him out of those pants immediately. The belt was already far, far away; she'd heard it dent the wall when she'd thrown it in her haste to stop it from hindering her access to his slim hips. She decided trial-and-error was probably the best approach; she groped with the button and zipper of his jeans until she managed to get them undone - it was hard to do these things one-handed and blind, damn it! - and then shoved the denim down until Angel complained. He made a pain noise in the back of his throat right above the knee, and one of his hands intercepted hers, and he finished removing his pants. She was fine with that, because now he was naked below the waist; Buffy was pleased to discover that he did not wear underwear.

"Can the bandages come off?" she whispered, her fingers testing the corset of gauze and tape. She wanted access to every inch of him; she wanted to run her hands over his broad, bare chest, wanted to stake claim. Plant flags.

"Not a good idea," he muttered, and she dropped it. She wondered what was underneath, though; what was so bad that it took a vampire a month to heal?

Angel was naked except for the bandages, and he had her in just her panties. She tried to take them off, and he growled. He growled. He was human and he growled. Buffy flushed, equal parts fear and arousal rampaging through her, and moved her hands aside. She'd just have to lie there, squirming, getting wetter and wetter and more desperate, until her decided he was ready to take her properly.

She wished there wasn't a part of her that found that really, really sexy, but there was.

A not small part.

One of Angel's big, capable hands pinned her to the bed, and the other shoved roughly between her legs, thrilling her sensitive sex even through her panties. She moaned, thrusting up against him, begging for more friction. She wanted to beg him to finish undressing her . . . but maybe that would make him mad. Oh . . . what would he do to her if he was mad . . . ?

His fingers worked against her beaded, eager clitoris, and she gyrated fervently against him, meeting every stroke. She felt her eyes drifting closed but she forced herself to keep them open; she wanted to watch Angel's intent face as he made her come. He was so beautiful, his dark eyes narrowed slightly in concentration, his mouth parted just a bit . . . oh god, oh god, oh Angel, thank you . . . she felt herself going lightheaded as his work paid off, and she finally allowed her eyes to drift closed as she crested the peak of her pleasure. The last thing she saw was Angel's mouth quirked in amusement, his eyes sparked with triumph. Damn him. He thought he was hot shit? She'd show him skill.

Buffy forgot completely about being careful of Angel's hurt leg, or any of his other hurt parts, as she flipped him to his back and came to a sitting position astride him. She wriggled out of her panties and slowly slid over him, slid him inside her. Angel breathed a long, harsh breath and Buffy forgot about keeping her eyes open to watch his face for one moment as Angel's thick, hard length filled her. God, but he went all the way to her core and she felt dizzy; she reeled slightly atop him before she remembered that she was teaching him a lesson. She stabilized herself and opened her eyes, smiled at him, a slow seductive grin.

And then she realized that while she was playing Angel, he wasn't playing her at all. His dark eyes watched her, just drinking her in, and his hands curled around her, steadying her and holding her atop him.

And she felt clean, and pure, and safe.

Buffy closed her eyes and let herself go to abandon.

3. Big Life Changes

Afterwards, Buffy lay in the wrecked motel sheets breathing in the warm, masculine scent of Angel perfumed with the musk of their shared sex, feeling sated, drunk. And so, so warm.

Buffy stretched like a cat on a sunny windowsill among the surf of the covers. She felt a little drugged, and a part of her wanted to just curl up in the nest of tremendous warmth they'd made here in this bed that Angel had imbued with his sexy, comforting smell, but she didn't want to close her eyes on his face. She'd thought he'd looked good, standing there in the doorway looking not-so-happy-to-see-her, but that didn't compare with now. Not at all. He was lying on his back - she wondered, suddenly, if it hurt him to lie on his side - all sex-damaged, flushed and mussed and . . . gorgeous and . . . well, strangely human.

No. Couldn't ignore this loveliness.

She rested her hand gently on his arm and he turned to look at her, dispassionate. She thought of the sting that had vibrated through her cheek when he'd slapped her, of the look on his face when he'd done it, and wondered if he'd let all his anger out in their lovemaking.

"Can I ask you something?" she inquired gently.

"Sure."

His voice was so soft, so low. She felt it caress her, all the way down, and had to ride out the sensation before she could continue.

"So . . . what was all that about? 'Cuz I thought you were pissed."

Angel looked sheepish. "Oh. That was . . . it was kind of a . . . I realized I-I mean, we could, and I couldn't help myself anymore . . . thing." The sheepish kept on coming. "I'm sorry."

Buffy's heart sank a little. "You are?"

Angel straightened. "What? No! I mean, not for-" He grinned awkwardly. "Not for . . . you know, that. I just . . . I just thought you were mad . . ."

Buffy smiled self-consciously. "No. No, definitely not mad."

He smiled. "Good."

Buffy traced the contour of his face with her index finger. "You should definitely do that more often."

"Jump you-?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Smile. You're very handsome when you smile." She kissed him. "Although the jumping me thing, that we can work out-"

He pressed her to the bed, smothering her with kisses, and only let up when she giggled.

"So . . . are you hungry?" Angel asked after Buffy's laughter had subsided, looking around the spartan room. "Because, I . . . have absolutely no food here whatsoever."

She laughed again. "I could eat." She snuggled against him. "What do you do for food, then, huh? Living the high life, eating out of the classy eateries that surround this fine establishment, like Joe's Two-for-One Burger Shack?"

Angel frowned. "You forget that until a few hours ago, I was pretty much on an all-liquid diet."

"Oh. That's right. But you-"

"Just went down to the butcher's a few times a week."

"Oh. Right. Stupid Buffy."

He kissed her forehead.

"What about you?" she asked. "Is your newly human stomach hungry?"

"I think so," he said slowly.

She raised her brow. "You don't know?"

"That might nausea. From the dehydration that accompanies absolute physical exhaustion."

She laughed.

Angel was so overwhelmed by the menu that Buffy ended up ordering for him.

"I could have done that," he protested numbly as the waitress shuffled away.

"You've been staring at the menu for twenty minutes. We would have starved to death."

"You say that like we had IHOP's the last time I ate," he sulked. "I don't-I don't remember how anything tastes, so I don't know how to . . ."

He looked so lost that Buffy felt bad for making fun of him, and she laid her hand over his.

"You just have to jump right in," she encouraged. "Just . . . you know, you can't be afraid. You have to let go of all your inhibitions and uncertainties and just let yourself experience everything. There's this whole new world open to you, and I think you'd do yourself a disservice if you didn't just go for it."

Angel smiled wryly. "You have a lot of experience becoming human after years of being a vampire?"

She shot him a look. "No, Mister Smartypants. But I'm kind of Big Life Changes Girl. I was a normal girl, and then I got tapped for this mystical, save-the-world-nightly deal. Then I fell in love with this guy I really shouldn't have-" She became acutely aware of Angel's eyes on her, and she blushed. "-and then I had to raise my little sister, and then I had to become mother to, like, every Slayer in the world, and now I'm a god. So I know what I'm talking about."

Angel smiled. "So maybe I should subscribe to your philosophy."

"At least about pancakes," Buffy said as the waitress returned with their food.

Angel looked uncomfortable, not quite sure how to approach his breakfast. Buffy scooted over in the vinyl-upholstered booth until she was snug beside him, and wove her arms between Angel's, collecting his silverware. Angel watched her, dazed, as she sectioned his pancakes. She brought a small piece - dripping with blueberry syrup; Buffy was fairly certain it was mostly sugar, but that it would be good for him - up to Angel's lips. He looked unsure for a minute, then opened his mouth and let Buffy feed him. He closed his eyes as he closed his lips over the first taste.

"Well?" she asked, searching his face.

"Sweet," he said slowly, opening his eyes to her expectant face.

"That's all?"

"It's good," he said, and went to work on his plate.

Buffy was amazingly content to watch him, but she managed to capture his mouth for a moment for a rescue-breath kiss.

He tasted sweet.

After breakfast, Buffy took Angel back to his hotel room and made love to him again. Angel laid beside her, lazy with sex and food, indolently exploring her newly holy body with his big, strong hands.

Buffy felt strangely awake.

"We need to get out of this motel room," she said, staring up at the ceiling's pattern of crackling plaster. "We should be someplace nice."

She wanted to go right now. She wanted to get out. Run. Run the gamut of the universe.

"Whatever you want," Angel murmured agreeably against her neck. He was nuzzled comfortably there, in what would have been very dangerous territory for him only a few hours ago, and she could feel his fingers idly tracing the outline of her breasts, her stomach. He was so warm.

Buffy didn't know if Angel could run. On the way to breakfast, she had seen how badly his injured leg caused him to limp, and when they'd come back to the room, she'd been careless and forced him to put all his weight on his bad knee in driving him to the mattress, and the color had drained from his face.

Just for a second, but it had been a long second.

Something should probably be done about that, she thought. Maybe she could fix that.

Buffy let her hand wander through the cheap sheets until she found Angel's thigh, his knee. He tensed slightly, so she knew without dropping her eyes from the broken ceiling that it was the wrecked one.

"What happened to your leg, Angel?" she asked, running her thumb lightly around his knee. He had stopped moving, she noticed.

"It got broken in the fight. A couple inches above the knee."

Buffy rested her palm above Angel's knee, to see if she could feel the imperfection. She couldn't feel anything wrong at all. Why did it hurt him so badly?

She dropped her eyes from the cracked ceiling to Angel's tense face. "Is it not healed all the way?"

He frowned. "I don't know. It should be. It's been long enough, but . . . it doesn't feel right."

Buffy was going to find words, about how she could heal him or about how it was going to be okay, or about how everyone he loved dying wasn't his fault, but Angel turned his face against her and made it clear that what he needed from her at the moment was silence.

Buffy's restlessness carried over to the next morning. She forced Angel out of bed early - despite his attempts to pull her back into bed with aphrodisiac kisses and very attractive promises - to go find a new place for them to stay. He was reluctant only until he saw how bright the new morning sun was outside, and then he grinned and ran out into the street to look at the spectacle properly, and it was all Buffy could do to swallow her laughter. She bought him breakfast - she would never tire of watching him eat - and then took him apartment shopping. He was not unlike taking a small child on an errand: he was generally nonchalant about the entire ordeal, but mostly he wanted it to be over so he could go outside and play. She considered leaving him at a park or something to be outside in the sun and not dragging behind her and the realtor looking longingly out all the windows, but then she was afraid he'd wander off and get into trouble, so she axed that idea. He stayed with her, and she signed papers on the seventh apartment of the day in self-defense and because it had huge windows and came furnished.

She bought Angel Japanese for dinner - for someone who never ate, he was surprisingly dexterous with chopsticks, but he made the mistake of eating a dime-sized glob of wasabi before Buffy could warn him and nearly choked - and then checked him out of the motel. Then the two of them moved Angel's few possessions into the new apartment.

"What about you?" he asked. "You don't have anything."

"Huh," Buffy said. "I'll just have to Jeanie it to Rome and get my stuff."

He frowned. "You can do that?"

She thought on it, her little brow furrowing. "I dunno. I mean, I know I can move from one place to another with no problem, just a little head rush, but I don't know if I can move stuff with me."

After a few trial-and-error practice runs, Buffy had several suitcases lying about the apartment, and Angel properly disconcerted.

"Oh, it's just a little time-and-space travel," she said dismissively. "Stop worrying."

"I'm not worried," Angel said nervously.

"Uh-huh."

Angel was still unhappy as they got ready for bed.

"You need to stop worrying, Angel," Buffy said to his slightly scowling countenance. "It's no big deal; I'm a god, I can totally handle it. That's just a tiny god trick, really."

"I can still worry about you, god or not," Angel said tightly. "I think I'm more worried about you now that you're a god; there's a lot we don't know about this. Who made you a god, and why-"

She frowned. "You're being paranoid. I mean, why was I chosen to be the One True Slayer? And who made that choice-"

Angel sighed. "You've made your point. I'm just worried about you."

"Yeah, I get it. Don't be a fraidy cat, though, okay? This should be a good thing. It should be fun."

He sulked. "I am not a fraidy cat."

She sent him a long, significant look. "You sure are. Fraaaidyyy cat. Meow."

Angel frowned and flipped her onto her back, settling overtop her with the sheets twisted around them. She grinned up at him, flushed, her hair spilling around her naked shoulders like a beached mermaid.

"Feeling better?"

"You need to be taught a lesson, regardless of how I feel."

Angel uncoiled the corset of sheets away from Buffy's tiny ribcage. With the same purposefulness and ease, he pulled her nightgown from her body and tossed it to the floor, baring her to him. Her golden skin was opalescent with pearls of perspiration, and her dusky nipples were beaded hard for his attention. Angel breathed a soft breath onto her febrile skin and she moaned and arched her back into the sensation, her entire body ultra-sensitive, raw.

Angel set his hands on Buffy's small shoulders to ground her to the mattress, and lowered his mouth to her breasts. He knew that she possessed easily enough strength to flip him onto his back and spend hours doing whatever she wanted to him, but he knew also that just the gentle pressure of his palms weighting her to the bed would be enough to dominate her, for the time being at least.

He pressed his lips to the curve of her breast. The flesh was firm and warm and soft, and Buffy moaned and arched against him, into his touch. He let himself drift further south to her nipple; he breathed softly against the sensitive area, didn't touch her at all but just let his warm breath arouse the flesh. Buffy keened quietly and tossed her head fitfully, closing her eyes tightly. Angel pursed his lips and blew a tight stream of cool air onto Buffy's hardened nipple; Buffy cried out, bucking her hips gently.

Angel smiled.

"You're sure you're not the goddess of sex?" he asked innocently.

Buffy glared one eye half-opened.

"You are horrible," she moaned.

"What about the goddess of sarcasm?" he inquired. "Or impatience?"

"I'm going to smite you," she whined.

Angel chuckled and pressed fond, soft kisses her breast, to the area around her nipple. Buffy whimpered.

"Angel!"

"Did anyone ever tell you patience was a virtue?"

"No!"

"Buffy, patience-"

"Angel!"

Angel chuckled and descended on her nipple. He laved it languorously with his skilled tongue before taking it leisurely into his mouth. Buffy relaxed . . . in the manner one relaxes in this instance.

"Happy?" he asked after a moment, freeing his mouth for a moment to blow cool air onto Buffy's finally attended-to nipple.

She squirmed. "No . . ."

Angel raised his brow, stopping his worship of Buffy's breasts. "No?"

"I want . . . you know . . ." Angel just stared at her and she blushed. "Are you really going to make me say it?"

"Am I psychic?"

"About me you usually are."

He didn't blink. "Then maybe I just like to hear this kind of thing come out of your pretty mouth."

Buffy blushed past crimson. "I want you . . . down there."

Angel leveled a look at her. "Down there?"

Her bottom lip plumped into a pout. "You're gonna make me say . . . it? But . . . I'm a god!"

Angel did not look amused. "And I love you; I do not worship you. So let's hear it, your holiness."

Buffy was insulted, but she wanted him way, way too much to argue.

"Angel, pleasewouldyouuseyourmouthonmebetweenmylegs?"

Angel managed to contain his amusement, and slid gracefully between her knees.

"That wasn't so hard, was it?"

"Yes," she stewed.

"Now be a good girl, or I'll spank you instead," he warned seriously, looking up at her from between her legs.

Buffy's blush flared violently. "You would spank me-"

"-even though you're a god; you bet your gorgeous, divine ass I would," Angel answered passively.

And then his able mouth fell upon her open sex, and Buffy absolutely and completely forgot every single reason she was angry with him.

"Do you have followers?" Angel asked quietly hours later, suddenly but not abruptly. His voice came from nowhere sometimes, but it rarely seemed hasty; it built up silently, invisibly, like storm clouds, like dew.

He was somewhere around her waist. Buffy was, a few hours ago, intensely aware of his exact location, but by now she'd been pleasured to a sort of throbbing numbness, and she only knew that he was somewhere southerly that made her feel omigodsogood, paying her delicate, sweet attention even after all these hours.

Buffy didn't know where he got the stamina. She was a god and she was felled to beached, sweating and writhing prettily against the bank of pillows, and Angel was only human now.

"I, um . . . he said I had followers already," Buffy murmured contentedly, raising her hips to Angel's warm, perfect mouth. "That's why he chose me to . . . to become a god."

Angel stopped what he was doing, and Buffy frowned and opened her eyes to see what the goshdarned hold up was, mister.

"Angel-"

"What do you mean?" he asked, and met her eyes with a purposeful gaze.

Buffy's frown deepened. She could pretty much kiss lazy petting goodbye until Angel's resolve had been assuaged.

"He, um, said that I . . . that, like, demons feared me and stuff, and that the new - you know, the used-to-be-Potentials-but-now-ex-Potential - Slayers revered me, so . . ."

Angel did not look assuaged. "But those aren't acolytes."

"What's and acolyte?"

"Someone who subscribes to your teachings. A follower."

Buffy wilted. "You don't know. They could be. The Slayers especially; some of them hang on my every word." She brightened, remembering what Dione had said about her ‘past lovers.' "Are you-"

Angel regarded her gravely. "No, Buffy. I am not an acolyte."

Buffy deflated into the pillows. Luckily for her, though, Angel was a multi-tasker, and as he mulled over this new information, he began pressing kisses to her hips and thighs. Buffy, becoming pleasantly agitated again, closed her eyes and relaxed beneath the much-sought-after attention.

"I'm just . . . this worries me," he said, and this time his words did border on abrupt, struck sharp by the note of concern running them through. "The whole . . . the whole god thing. I worry about things that happen to you, and I worry about the not knowing, and . . . and I've only ever known two gods, so I'm not an expert . . . but it doesn't seem like a very stable state of being to me. So I worry."

Angel's admission that he'd known a god was enough to distract Buffy even from the very pleasant consideration she was receiving, and she opened her eyes and sat up a little, making her less prone beneath Angel's touch and more an adult having an adult conversation.

"You know gods?" she asked.

"Yeah. In one case ‘knew,' but yeah. They . . . well, they were kind of enormous pains in the ass, but of more importance to your case, I think-I think that a normal human body couldn't . . . it wasn't enough to contain them. But you don't have a normal human body; maybe a Slayer body's enough?"

Buffy frowned, looking down at her divine body. It looked fine to her.

"I don't know," she said weakly.

"And where does the power come from? I was led to believe godhood was just a higher realm of being, but that makes the question of transubstantiation kind of an interesting one . . . although I guess vampires would make an argument that it's the same thing as taking a human body and making it a demon-"

Buffy felt herself becoming a bit dizzy. "-or do you need worshippers to generate power? But you're not even sure you have acolytes, or what the definition even is, so-" "Angel," Buffy said firmly. "I don't know. I didn't get a handbook when I signed up, okay? I just know that one day I woke up like this, and it was kind of an accident, but now it's my life and I have to make the most of it. And no, it's not really a bad thing; I can do a lot of good stuff with this, I think. And I know there's lots of stuff we have to know, but I need you to chill."

Angel was stunned.

"Okay," he said finally.

"Okay," she repeated, and kissed him thoroughly.

She smiled. "I think that's the most I've ever heard you speak at one time."

Angel looked a little sheepish. "I was worried. When I get nervous, I babble. Apparently."

"It's cute."

"Make me nervous more often," he challenged.

Buffy giggled and pulled him close. "I'm positive that can be arranged."

Buffy got Angel out of bed early again the next morning. Car shopping, this time.

"Everyone drives in Los Angeles, Angel, or haven't you heard?" she explained brightly to his grumbling back as he headed into the bathroom.

While Angel was in the shower, Buffy willed herself a current edition of the local paper and started looking through the Classifieds for likely suspects. She had several prospective rides - several stops for herself and her reluctant charge - circled by the time Angel joined her again, dripping slightly but squeaky clean in his post-shower towel ensemble.

"What took you?" she demanded, scooting over to make room for him on the bed.

He had been a long time, but he didn't answer her. She looked up at him and realized what had happened: he'd changed the bandages round his middle, and that must have taken a while.

"Oh," she said.

Angel looked down at her bemarked paper.

"You've got my whole day planned, huh?" he asked glumly.

"Yeah. But if you can stop brooding long enough, I'll buy you breakfast first. Ever have eggs Benedict?"

Angel, pacified by the promise of exotic new breakfast, amenably stopped brooding long enough to haul himself off the bed and begin dressing. Buffy tried not to stare when he dropped his towel, but . . . well, that plan didn't work out so well. God, he was so beautiful, and he-he was everything she wanted. And he was hers. At least right now he was.

She just had to figure out how to keep him. For good this time.

Buffy was distracted from this thought, even from the swelling in her chest at her lover's beauty, when Angel's fluid movements jerked. It was just a small jump in the track, but it was there. He stopped, tensed, and his face contorted briefly in pain. He kept going after that, almost immediately, but Buffy frowned. It hurt him just to get dressed. A month after the battle, and still . . . and she'd made him human, and it would take him much longer to heal now.

Buffy rose from the bed and closed the distance between herself and her lover, kissed him softly while taking his belt from him. She kissed him, tender, dulcet kisses, while she carefully brought his trousers up around his slim hips, worked the button through the eye, and ran up the zipper. God, she was so, so careful, but she still felt him wince, felt him fold against her in pain.

"Angel," she started, but he cut her off, his voice quiet, slightly desperate.

"It'll get better."

His eyes met hers, and they were desperate, too.

Buffy couldn't find words to take that look from his eyes, so she just shut her mouth and retrieved the shirt he'd gotten out of their closet. The linen was expensive and it felt light and crisp in her hands, sound, the way she thought it should feel.

She came up behind Angel, approached his broad shoulders, the dark stain of the ancient, mysterious bird marking him, and he allowed her to finish dressing him. As she helped Angel into his shirt, Buffy's fingers brushed the dressings round his ribs.

"I could heal you. No more bandages," she whispered, pressing her lips against the nape of his neck, pressing her body against his.

He stiffened. "No."

She drew away from him, enough to look him in the face, a little taken aback by his sharp tone.

"Why not?"

He frowned slightly. "I just . . . I don't want you . . . customizing me."

Buffy laughed and pulled close against him again, her breasts and belly flush against his broad back.

"Don't be silly," she murmured against his ear, running her hands over his stomach, his hips. "You're perfect. You're all I want. I just don't like to see you hurting, and I could fix it-"

Angel allowed himself to relax against her. "The pain's not too bad, now. And it'll heal on its own, given time-"

"But I-"

"Buffy, no. It makes me nervous. There's something we're missing."

She wanted to press, but she knew that there was a huge chunk that he'd left out of that sentence, I'm scared for you since you came back to me like this, and it made her ache in a deep part of her, so she just held him closer and let it go.

"At least let me take you to a doctor, okay? For your leg, to make sure it's healing right? You're still limping pretty bad."

Under different circumstances he might have fought, but she'd ceded a lot of ground and just then she rested her hand on his bad leg and the pain was indeed so raw still that he bowed his head. She withdrew her hand; she hadn't meant to hurt him. Angel nodded.

"Okay."

She kissed and petted him until the wince relaxed from his face, and then she said, "Maybe it would be a good idea to take you to all the regular doctors, just for checkups. I mean, you're like a baby; you've never been to any kind of doctor, and it's like-"

"Like you're adopting a puppy?" Angel asked wryly.

She smacked his shoulder playfully. "No. Puppies are fun and cute and you're just . . . big and annoying."

Angel turned his large, brown - not at all puppyish, Buffy tried to convince herself, fighting to keep a grin from surfacing on her face - eyes on her.

"You wouldn't want me for your puppy?"

The grin popped up, sudden and bright as the first daisy of spring. Buffy's hands snaked below Angel's waistline.

"Don't make me take you to the special doctor to get you fixed."

Angel grinned, too, and twisted within her grasp, tried to writhe away from her. She was mindful of his injuries, and she didn't want to hurt him, but she wanted to win; she locked her hands behind him and, once he'd turned full circle, she pulled him back flush against her so they were face-to-face and breaths apart.

"If I recall, you rather like that part you're threatening to have removed," Angel said sagely, regarding her with slightly narrowed eyes and a quirked mouth.

She was still grinning, due in no small part to the fact that she could feel that part pressing insistently against her.

"Okay. I cede your point," she bargained solemnly. "We'll just send you to obedience school."

Angel's retaliation was ruthless and immediate. Buffy didn't know where he'd learned, but he knew all of her most ticklish spots, and he hit them all within thirty seconds. She squealed and tried to get away from him, but he was just so big, and human or not, he was quick. She wasn't going anywhere. Soon she was laughing so hard she was crying, and Angel was gently guiding her trembling body to the floor even as he ignored her pleas for him to stop. She couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed this hard, the last time she'd abandoned control of her body like this, but the last time she'd felt this young and free had probably been with Angel, too. People forgot - they always remembered how much he made her cry - but no one made her so happy, either. No one ever had, and no one ever would again.

He finally stopped his assault on her and left her lying trembling and weak with laughter on the floor. He lay down beside her and kissed her soundly on her quivering mouth.

"I firmly believe you deserved that," he said.

Buffy punched him on the shoulder - incredibly weakly, all her strength sapped by Angel's punishment - and they collapsed on each other in a fit of laughter.

The next morning, Buffy got up before Angel even stirred and snuck out of the room with the phonebook. She sat in the hall with the book in her lap, flipping the Yellow Pages from Dock Repair to Dog Boarding looking for a suitable physician.

She rejected two who wanted her to leave a message on their voicemail for an appointment, successfully booked with a third for later that afternoon, snuck back into the room, and replaced the book without waking Angel. She slipped back into bed beside him and pressed a kiss to his sleep-mussed hair.

It would be super-fun actually getting him to go, since he'd only agreed to the appointment in a moment of weakness, but it would be good for him.

It quickly became apparent that an active imagination was going to be paramount in getting Angel through his new patient information packet.

The first stumbling block came on the first line, which asked for his name. It might have been okay, except it wanted last name first.

"Uh-oh," Buffy said.

Angel frowned. "Why do I have to do this? This is stupid. In my day, when you needed to see a doctor, you called for one and they came to you, and when they wanted to know something, they asked. And the things they wanted to know were generally along the lines of, ‘What seems to be the trouble today? Does it hurt when I do this?' And you could have a bone set for a chicken or a baby delivered for a bushel of apples-"

Buffy patted his hand reassuringly. "I know it's stupid, sweetie. But it's part of normal, boring human life today, and you have to do it."

Angel scowled at his clipboard.

"Just put down your old last name," she said encouragingly. "From when you were human the first time."

He averted his eyes. "I can't."

"Why not? Is it embarrassing, like . . . I dunno, Whitehead, or . . . or Hickinbottom?"

"Because I don't remember what it is," he said softly.

"Oh," Buffy murmured. "Okay, well . . ."

Angel was so still and he looked so sad that the words froze in her throat.

"We'll just come back to that one, okay?" she finished gently as soon as she could force a thaw.

His height and weight were easy to approximate. He didn't know his blood type - he asked what it was, and Buffy had to use every ounce of strength she possessed to keep from laughing - and they made up an age and birth date. (Buffy hoped her math was right; what an embarrassing way to get found out.)

His medical history was almost complete fabrication, since the last time he'd been sick he'd had scarlet fever, and in between now and then he'd been skewered on swords and scorched by dragons on a fairly regular basis.

"Have you broken that leg before? Or, you know, any other bones?"

Angel gave her a look.

"Okay, let's go back to making stuff up," she said hurriedly. "How about chicken pox? Everyone's had chicken pox."

"I haven't. We didn't get that when we were kids."

"What did you get?"

"Measles. Whooping cough-"

"Things that there are vaccines for now, and that nobody gets unless they live in a third world country, and the doctor will think you are crazy if you say you had-"

"I didn't actually have whooping cough, just measles-"

"You're not allowed to help anymore."

Towards the end, they got a little less detail-oriented, and started haphazardly throwing things around.

"How did you mom die?"

"Well . . . when I was turned-"

"Hang-gliding accident," Buffy decided.

"Hang-gliding?"

"Very hip. God, why do they make these things so long?"

Angel was dismayed to discover that, once they were finally called out of the waiting room, there was more waiting.

"What was the point of making an appointment?" he asked with genuine bewilderment.

"Mirth," Buffy answered, pawing through the drawers and cabinets in Angel's exam room. Shouldn't these be locked? There was some cool stuff in here! "For the office staff."

Angel sat on the exam table scowling, uncomfortable and embarrassed on the noisy, unwieldy paper covering. Buffy found some cool sticky electric probe thingies on long tentacles, and - delighted - began the search for whatever shock box of doom they were connected to.

The door opened suddenly and Buffy stuffed her electrodes back into the drawer and slammed it closed, placing her body guiltily between it and the figure in the doorway. Angel looked up lethargically.

The doorway was shadowed by a grimly smiling nurse with a severe hairdo and frighteningly cheerful scrubs.

"All right, dear," she said to Buffy. "The doctor'll be with you in a minute-"

"Him," Buffy said, pointing to Angel.

The nurse wheeled around, pivoting smoothly on the heel of her white sneaker. "Angel?"

He nodded numbly and she continued her spiel robotically. "All right, dear, the doctor'll be with you in a minute. You need to strip down to your socks and underwear-"

Angel blinked. "What?"

"The doctor has to look at your leg, sweetheart," Buffy intervened smoothly, slipping between Angel and the nurse. "I'll help you."

The nurse shuffled off, shutting the door efficiently behind her. Buffy shot Angel a triumphant look.

"Aren't you glad I made you wear underwear today?"

Angel was half-naked and he'd been waiting over an hour, and he'd had to fill out paperwork. (Also, his leg hurt; Buffy could tell. He had it stretched out, which he only stooped to do when it was causing him particular pain.) So he was not the happiest camper when the doctor finally showed.

In fact, he was in growly showdown mode when the doctor finally showed. Buffy had stopped fooling around in the drawers and cabinets and come to sit with him on the exam table, half to comfort him and half to protect the doctor on his entrance. Angel was human now, but he was still a very big man.

The doctor, who appeared an hour and twenty-two minutes after their scheduled appointment time, was not. He was short and neat and wore a tidy moustache. His white coat was recently pressed and his stethoscope gleamed.

The doctor looked down at a manila folder in his small, clean hands: Angel's file. (Angel had a file! Buffy was tickled. He was people!)

"All right, Mr.-" he frowned. "Table-"

Angel shifted uncomfortably, shooting a look at Buffy, who had picked his surname in a hurry as the last field before setting down the pen.

"It's a strong, uh . . . Dutch name," he explained.

"I see," the doctor said, sending the reluctant Mr. Table a suspicious glance over his file. "I'm Dr. Kyle-"

Buffy waited a brief beat for him to finish and then asked, brow creased, "Dr. Kyle what?"

She was met with silence and colored rapidly.

"Sorry," she muttered, and studied her manicure.

Dr. Kyle What? continued. "So you're having some musculoskeletal pain in your left leg."

"I know," Angel said blankly.

"Angel," Buffy chided softly.

He regarded her without comprehension. "What?"

"Tell me about your leg," the doctor said, ignoring their exchange. "Is there anything you can think of that could have caused the pain-"

"I broke it, a few weeks ago. I'm not sure it set correctly; the knit doesn't feel quite right."

"And he's limping," Buffy added.

"Okay," Dr. Kyle said absently. "I'll have you walk in a minute; for now, let's have you move it."

He set his hand around Angel's knee, fingers curling underneath, thumb on top. Angel frowned, but flexed obediently.

"You don't have a previous doctor listed on your patient information form. It would be helpful to have that information, and your records."

"We're new in town," Angel answered seamlessly.

Buffy was a little impressed by how quick-thinking Angel was, but mostly she was aglow at being included in his pronoun. We are new in town. Like they'd just moved there from someplace else, and had picked out a house and spent forever arguing over furniture and paint colors and china-

"I see," Dr. Kyle murmured. "Well, I can't feel any problem, and it looks okay, but neither one of those means that a problem isn't there. I'd like to take an x-ray to be sure nothing's wrong."

Angel looked intrigued. "A what?"

There was an x-ray on-site, and Dr. Kyle met them there once Angel had put his clothes back on.

"This . . . this'll show you my bones?" Angel asked, curiously examining the table in the middle of the room, the white sheets at the side, and the lighting boards on the wall that, dormant, slept the milky blue of veins beneath the skin. He circled the arm hanging above the table like a monstrous, twenty-first century pendulum, all wires and cords and horrible glass eye. Buffy watched him, amused yet apprehensive, feeling like a mother who should collect her child before he breaks something or harms himself.

Dr. Kyle studied his patient carefully. "You've never had an x-ray before?"

"No," Angel said, distracted, ducking his head between the table and the arm to see just what was under there. "How does it work?"

The doctor spoke slowly, still scrutinizing Angel in his clean, clinical way. "The name ‘x-ray' comes from what makes the pictures work: ‘x-ray' radiation. The machine excites x-rays, making them travel from one place to another - in this case, from the x-ray source, which is on one side of you, to a photographic plate, on the other. X-rays are able to pass through soft tissue - your skin, muscles, organs - and on those places, the film turns black. Everywhere else - your bones - lights up."

Angel grinned at Buffy. "That's amazing. Someone just thought that up. Isn't that amazing?"

Buffy couldn't smile, even at Angel's naive joy, because Dr. Kyle didn't look happy. He was still looking at Angel, and he looked like he knew something was up.

"You didn't have an x-ray when your bone was set the first time?" he asked quietly.

Angel opened his mouth to say something, but then couldn't find a convincing lie and gave it up.

"No."

"I see," said the doctor, and then he didn't say anything else, just helped Angel position himself for his very first x-ray ever.

As awed as Angel had been by seeing the x-ray machinery, he was even more blown away by seeing x-rays of his own bones.

"That's a picture of inside me," he told Buffy. "Right now! Can you believe that?"

Buffy, smiling, assured him that it was pretty unbelievable, all right.

"Right here," Dr. Kyle told Angel, pointing to a slight seam just above the knee on the picture of inside of Angel, right now, "at the inferior extremity. Your break didn't heal all the way. If you'd had it professionally set, it should have healed together; there shouldn't be that gap there. Do you see what I'm talking about?"

Angel nodded. "Yeah."

Buffy clung nervously to Angel's hand. "So what do we do?"

"Well, surgery's probably your most expedient option. I can put a pin in it-" He paused. "I know what you're thinking; you think, like, a sewing pin, a bobby pin. No." He went to the drawers Buffy had been digging through and returned with an exemplar, a steel rod two inches long and half an inch in circumference. "Something like this, to sew them together."

Buffy couldn't stop looking at it. It was so big, to have inside you . . .

Angel frowned. "What else?"

"Well, you can just leave it alone and hope for the best. You're not completely done healing, and it might come together a little more, though I doubt it'll make it more than a few hairs' breadths. What I'd really like for you to do - in either case - is go to physical therapy. They'll show you how to walk on it, what exercises you can do to acclimate your muscles to the change, and it'll help a whole lot with the pain and with future problems - putting stress on it while you walk, etc. - if not actually addressing the cause. It's a palliative treatment, but I'd like to see you do it."

Angel was quiet for a long moment. Finally, Buffy nudged him gently. "Sweetie?"

He looked up. "Do I have to decide right away?"

"Absolutely not. Take some time." Dr. Kyle leveled a grave look at Angel. "I know that you're not afraid of risk, and that you're not afraid of pain. But I want you to understand that if you leave this untreated, it could very well cause you problems later in life, and I'd hate to see that. You won't be a young man forever."

4. I Love You, Buffy

Angel, despite his ruffling and his puppy remark, was like a newborn baby in many ways. There was so much he didn't know, and the simplest things could fill him with wonder. He liked to go places - outdoor places, public places, places he hadn't been able to visit the past two hundred odd years - and just experience them. Feel the sun on his skin, smell the fresh air and food - Buffy was really, really tickled by his wonderment concerning such a mundane activity as eating; the look on his face when he put something new into his mouth was enough that she was determined to learn how to cook - be around people without being a predator. He just liked to go places and just feel how they were different now, and Buffy enjoyed taking him; she watched him from not-too-far, like a mother watching a toddler endeavor on its shaky first steps.

Angel was so quiet in the car after visiting the doctor that Buffy felt she should do something to try and cheer him up, so she took him to a bookstore as a treat. It was somewhere new, and she knew how he loved books-not like Giles, who clung to information as a religion, but like a lonely old man who knows where he can always find a familiar friend.

It wasn't one of the old, secluded, privately owned shops he usually frequented. She took him to Barnes and Noble and let him loose under the fluorescent lights, watching with great amusement as he wandered, slightly dazed, through the stacks of crisp, glossy manuscripts.

She wondered if he'd be okay if he found out the bookstore café served cookies.

When Angel had recovered from the bright lights and the bigness and shininess of it all enough to start browsing, Buffy dropped her shadow past noon so she could aimlessly poke through the stacks herself. She couldn't find anything interesting in Beauty, refrained from picking up some Chick Lit and Harlequin Romance novels only because she'd be embarrassed for Angel to see them, and then just floated aimlessly several feet behind her charge, his nervous parent or Secret Service tail, until she snagged on something interesting.

World Religions. Buffy stopped, a spike of curiosity chilling through her. This could be helpful, right? Maybe Angel was right; there was a lot they didn't know.

Browsing, however, soon left her frustrated. This was all boring general information stuff for-you know, not deities. What had she been expecting, an illustrated pamphlet, So You Woke Up a God?

She sighed over a copy of The Complete Compendium of Syro-Palestinian Deities (Unabridged) and was about to go find Angel for a mocha and something sweet from the café when a water-light voice broke through her brood.

"He's gorgeous, your boy."

Buffy turned quickly, her muscles tautening, her blood coursing with adrenalin. Her Slayer senses weren't riled at all, but she was battle-ready anyway.

But why? The speaker was a woman, not much older than she was, and deeply beautiful. She was milky white and smooth-skinned, dressed in pale green silk. Tumbles of blonde hair fell around her face like waves. Her large, placid blue-green eyes were focused, unblinking, on Buffy.

She didn't look like much of a threat, but Buffy's heart was beating fast, and it was hard for her to relax from let's-get-ready-to-rumble pose.

"What?" Buffy asked after a ten second delay.

The woman blinked slowly, the way princesses and animals do in Disney movies.

"Your boy," she repeated precisely. "He's beautiful."

Her voice was a hypnotic, soothing, deeply inviting noise. Buffy felt herself grow a little breathless; listening to her speak was like being caressed. She blushed a little; she'd never thought anything like that about anyone but Angel before.

"Angel?" she asked weakly. Had this woman been watching them? She felt her cheeks grow hotter.

The woman's full, coral lips quirked in a small, enigmatic smile. "What a sweet name."

Buffy was still feeling cornered, hunted. "What do you want?"

The calm sea eyes rested on her. "He's a beautiful boy, and I would hate to see him hurt, snatched away. He ought to bear your mark."

Buffy frowned. "Huh?"

The woman smiled. "I recognize you. I know what you are. And you should protect your property."

Buffy went numb. "You know what I am?"

The woman inclined her head slightly, and in that instant Buffy saw a flicker of pale sand and blue, blue water, a blonde woman waking on the beach sticky with pearls . . .

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm kind of new at this."

"I'm not," the woman said simply.

"I-I know." Buffy frowned. "I don't know how I know, but I . . . I know." She paused, tried to remember what was said. "What . . . what was that, about Angel? My mark?"

"You're young; you haven't gotten your bearings yet. Someone might try-"

"To take him from me?" Buffy thought she remembered. "Someone like you?"

The woman laughed, tossing her hair. Buffy swore she smelled sea foam.

"I'm a lover, not a fighter." Her face turned solemn. "But there are others who are not well-intentioned, and I believe they would hurt you. For pleasure, for a purpose-of this I am not sure, but I do know that the simplest way would be to hurt your mortal friend."

Buffy felt a stone of worry settle in her belly. "But . . . but you said there was something I could do. Something to protect him."

The woman smiled. "Inscribe him with your mark."

Buffy shook her head. "I don't understand. What mark? I don't have a mark-"

"It is a symbol to denote you. All beings have this. All beings of worth."

Desperately, Buffy grabbed the woman's perfect, seashell-pale arm. "But I don't know what it is!"

The woman slipped silkily from her grasp. "This is not my concern. I am not your ally, Buffy Slayer Goddess. I simply have consideration for you because you are in love, and because he has such love for you - and he is so beautiful - and these things interest me more than the wanton enmity of those opposing you."

Buffy was struck speechless, and simply watched the woman walk away.

Buffy found Angel in the clearance section, poking through coffee table picture books.

"Where's Paris, Hilton?" he asked when she came up and wrapped her arms around his waist, buried her face between his shoulder blades. She felt an intense need to be as close to him as was physically possible. "I saw it in a book, and it seems to be a popular tourist destination, but I've never heard of it before."

She couldn't help but laugh, though. "Paris Hilton is a person, sweetheart. Well, technically."

He frowned. "Oh. I guess that explains a few things." He flipped through a coffee table book on castles; Buffy looked out from his sweater to the large, glossy photographs of crumbling towers rising up from green countrysides.

"It doesn't smell like books in here," he continued, disconcerted. "It smells . . . plasticky. And new. It isn't . . . right."

"You think it doesn't smell like books because it doesn't smell like dust. Books smell like paper."

She collapsed into his sweater again.

Angel rested his hand on her head, stroked her hair. "Are you okay?"

"Can we go?"

"Yeah," he said softly, and put the castle book down. "Of course."

He didn't press her, and she could have kissed him for it.

So she did.

Angel came home with three books, all of which, after short interrogation by Buffy, it turned out he had read before.

"But I missed them," he protested.

She wasn't sure what to say to that - it aroused the same feelings as when he asked her didn't she think about the future, or when he said something really smart or beautiful that totally went over her head, like he had feelings that were bigger than hers - so she just went through his purchases.

She wrinkled her brow. "What's a seine Brüder?"

He sat beside her on the couch. "‘Seine' is the possessive; ‘brüder' is ‘brother'-"

She frowned. "You bought a book in . . ." She hazarded a guess, "Russian?"

He smiled. "German."

"You bought a book in German? This is like homework."

"No! It's . . . fun."

She eyed him strangely. "You have a strange definition of fun, mister."

She picked up his other books. "La Nausée. That's not English either, huh?"

"I'm afraid not."

She cocked her head to the side. "Still . . . it sounds pretty. What's it mean?"

"Nausea."

She wrinkled her nose. "Ew. Is it like a medical drama or something?"

He laughed. "Not quite."

She set that one down on the coffee table, leaving only the third book in her hands. She burst into a radiant smile. "Oh, Angel! Charlotte's Web!" She looked up at him hopefully. "Read to me?"

He smiled. "I'd love to."

Buffy sat back against the cushions so Angel could rest against her and stretch out his bad leg; he wasn't quite ready to bear her weight comfortably yet. She held him in her lap like a pet and ran her fingers through his hair, traced the contours of the muscles in his chest and arms as he read to her about the good-hearted Arable girl, the amazing Charlotte A. Cavatica, and Some Pig!

Buffy tried to get lost in the story and Angel's soft voice, a sensory cue that was normally sufficient to make her weak in the knees. She tried to get lost in the meditative activity of casually touching her lover, something that years before would have been forbidden, enough to drive them both half mad, something she should be sweating over.

But none of these things worked. All she could think about is what the beautiful woman in the bookstore - not woman. She was a god - had said: that people wanted to hurt her, and that they'd do it through Angel.

And she found herself close to tears.

Angel had stopped reading.

"What's wrong?"

"I . . ."

How could she tell him? How could she tell him that what he'd wanted more than anything left him vulnerable to attack, that it might get him killed? Because of her?

"It's just the story," she whispered finally. "It's so sad."

He found her the next day furiously scribbling over a piece of paper. The floor was littered with a blizzard of crumpled rejects, jagged white snowballs cut dark with harsh, unfamiliar runes.

"What are you doing?" he asked cautiously, stepping carefully through the wreckage.

Buffy was so involved in her task that she hadn't heard him coming, and his voice startled her; she jumped and covered her work guiltily.

"What? Me? I . . . nothing."

Angel's brow rose. "That's amazingly convincing."

She sighed. It was no use. Stupid Angel was stupidly psychic about everything in her life. He always had been; apparently, he always would be.

"Fine. Something happened yesterday, at the bookstore."

He joined her at the table. "I thought so."

"I didn't want to tell you, because I didn't want you to worry-"

"See how well that plan worked."

She frowned. "Well, fine. But I didn't-shut up. Anyway, while you were buying your difficult foreign books, I ran into this woman-not a woman. A goddess. And I didn't actually run into her; she came up to me. And she knew me. Like . . ."

"Takes one to know one," Angel surmised.

"Yeah, I guess," Buffy agreed uncomfortably. "Anyway, she said that maybe someone might try to hurt me, and if they did, they'd probably do it through you."

He frowned. "This sounds like a lot of summarizing on your part."

"I didn't have a stenographer-"

"But if you have enemies, specifics become important-!"

"I couldn't agree more. But she wasn't naming names or anything like that. You two would have gotten along; she made big with the cryptic."

He sighed. "Okay. So what's with Buffy's Craft Corner?"

"Huh?"

He nodded to the litter of reject sketches. Buffy sighed.

"Oh. That. Okay, this is the part I love the least. She says that to keep you safe, I need to ‘inscribe you with my mark,' and that part I remember word-for-word, because I kind of panicked because I had no idea what she was talking about. I don't have a mark! And then when I said that, she said that ‘All beings have a symbol to denote them' or whatever, and I-"

Angel laughed, and Buffy stopped cold, stunned and hurt.

"I'm not seeing the funny."

"Give me your pencil."

Buffy handed him her pencil and slid her paper over to him. Angel poised his hand to draw-and then stopped short.

"You were going to brand me with that?" he asked of a particularly inappropriate stick figure, quirking an eyebrow.

"Huh? Oh, no, that's a doodle; I was getting frustrated . . . like now, when you won't tell me what's funny . . ."

Angel turned her paper to the clean back and set the lead to the page. In a few short strokes he'd finished his illustration; he pushed the paper back to Buffy so she could get the joke.

She stared blankly at what he'd written.

"That's my name," she said dully.

"It is."

She continued to stare at the graphite letters as though she expected them to transform into something else, into something that would help her.

"It's my name," she said again.

Angel sighed.

"What is a symbol?" he asked.

Buffy frowned. "So not in the mood for Q&A."

"Then let's make it a lesson. A symbol is something that stands for something else. The most basic symbols are letters; they stand for speech sounds-"

She sighed. "I get it. Names are symbols, too, because they stand for people, or things? There's no such thing as ‘tree;' a tree's a . . . tree . . . thing. With . . . bark and . . ." She frowned. "You know what I mean."

He smiled. "I know what you mean. And you're right."

She looked down at Angel's elegant rendition of her simple name. "So that's my mark? You're sure?"

"No, I'm not sure. But if I was a betting man . . ."

She looked up at him seriously. "Well, right now, you are. We both are."

Buffy looked through the phonebook for tattoo parlors. She didn't know how to choose one, so she just looked through the list, hoping inspiration would strike her; halfway down the page, it did. Idol Images. When she first became a god, she looked up the definition in the dictionary, and one of the definitions was "an image of a supernatural being, an idol." So this had to be a sign, right? Or, you know, a huge coincidence.

Buffy wrote down the address and went to find Angel. She hadn't actually asked him, "Hey, can I tattoo my name on you?" Normally this would be a big deal in a relationship, but right now it was possibly a matter of life and death, so the circumstances were different . . .

But there were still butterflies in her stomach. Not just the nervous kind, but the girly kind, too.

Angel was in the living room, sitting by the door. Waiting for her. He even had his coat on. Apparently they didn't need to talk.

They didn't talk in the car, either, except Buffy drove and Angel gave her directions every once in a while, because he had been prowling these streets for five years and could probably walk the whole of Los Angeles - or at least the bad neighborhoods and the demon-infested bits - with his eyes closed. But when they finally pulled up in front of the shop, which just happened to be in a bad neighborhood that very likely teemed with vamps the moment the sun went down every night, Angel spoke as soon as the purr of the engine died.

"You can never leave me now," he said softly. He wasn't looking at her. "It's bad enough not having you when I've got your name carved on my heart, but if I have to look at it on my body, too . . . ?"

Buffy felt as though she just drank barium. When she was finally able to swallow the incredibly heavy words he had just put into the air, she managed, "I wasn't planning on it. You left me, remember?"

Angel's cheeks sunk in a little. "I left the last time. But you've run from me plenty."

"Angel-"

He looked up suddenly, his eyes slightly spooked like a horse's or a deer's.

"It's not about this," he said, the end of his voice breaking to raw. "I mean . . . all that, what I said, it's true, but I-I'm going to die. My body, right now . . . it's broken, and it hurts, and one day it's just going to stop working, and I'm old, Buffy, and I know with more certainty than I've ever known anything that there is never going to be a single moment in my life I won't want to share with you, but if you're going to get up and leave me when you start outpacing me by too much, then-"

Buffy put her fingers to his lips, gently, to stop him, to still him.

"I am never going to leave you," she said, meeting his eyes. "I am never going to leave you."

The shop was empty except for a skinny kid with a great deal of hair and a collection of piercings, a combination Buffy considered fairly foolish. He was sitting on a stool behind the counter reading a magazine with a cover so explicit that Buffy blushed when she figured out exactly what the people pictured were doing; he looked up when they walked in.

"What up," he said in way of greeting.

"Um, I-is that a question?" Buffy asked Angel. She was already walking holding his hand, but she scooted a little closer to him. She was beginning to regret her choice of shops.

"I don't think so," he muttered. "Hi."

"Hey. Pierce something for you today? I always do ladies half off if they show me their-"

"Not today, thanks," Buffy said quickly, before Angel could reach across the counter and start removing piercings. "Actually, he's your customer, and he's not a big flasher."

"I'm shy," Angel added in a monotone, eyes narrowed in on the boy, in case he were stupid enough to make another lewd comment to Buffy while he was within arm's reach.

The boy put down his magazine, which let Buffy see his nametag (on crooked); it said ‘Zeke.' Zeke all but fell off his stool and clambered around the counter to converse with them on a more salesmanly level.

"Getting a hole or some ink, dude?"

"He wants a tattoo," Buffy said, eyeing the kid nervously. She counted the holes in his face mentally and the nervous just kept on coming. "Are you the only one here . . . ?"

"Yeah, but no worries, I'm good at it. What are you thinking, dude, like a skull or a naked lady or something?"

Angel regarded him completely bereft of humor. "If she draws something on me, can you trace over it?"

"Sure," Zeke said amiably, eager to please his only customers. "But that's boring, unless it's a skull-"

"-or a naked lady or something. Duly noted," Angel said. "Do you have a pen?"

Zeke trudged back behind the counter.

Buffy looked uncertainly at Angel. "You want me to write it?"

Angel shrugged. "Your mystery goddess said that you should inscribe me with your symbol, right? So it should boost the magic, even though I doubt it's a needed ingredient." He cupped her cheek in his palm. "Plus, I'd just . . . I'd like it."

She blushed and stepped forward to kiss him; Zeke returned and thrust a pen at her and nipped that right in the bud. She blushed more and broke away from Angel, and the two of them followed the boy to the back of the shop where the actual tattoo parlor was.

"Where do you want it?" Angel asked.

Buffy didn't know. "I hadn't thought about it. Um, I don't know if it needs to be someplace people can see-"

Angel extended his arm.

"I-okay. I guess . . . is that okay?"

"Whatever you want."

Zeke herded Angel into a chair like at the dentist's, or the barber's - plush, vinyl, and adjustable - and Angel rested his left arm on the armrest, wrist up, for Buffy. She came and sat on the chair with him, nearly on his lap, and poised the pen right above his pulse point.

"You're sure you want to do this?" she asked.

Angel rolled his eyes heavenward. "Buffy."

"Okay! Right, I know-I'm just nervous."

She steadied his arm with her left hand and slowly, carefully, pressed the pen into his flesh with her right.

"Don't know why you're nervous," Zeke said. "He's the one getting inked for you."

Angel ignored him. His eyes were on Buffy, her little brow furrowed in concentration, her teeth worrying her bottom lip, her deliberate cursive curls. He rested his right hand on the back of her neck, stroked her smooth skin with his thumb; he felt her shiver, briefly, and then relax against his hand.

The sensation of the pen was strange, almost a tease, a middle ground between tickle and irritation. And Buffy was applying it with such diligence, and she looked possessed with such intensity doing it, and she was almost in his lap . . . Angel realized, suddenly, that he wished they were somewhere else, and he tried very hard to think about other things. Things other than what Buffy's strong hands and soft mouth would feel like on him, but God, that was all he could look at, and-damn it.

"All done!" Buffy declared brightly, turning and bestowing a radiant smile on him.

Angel let out a harsh pant of air. "Great."

She looked a little concerned. "Are you okay? You look-"

"I'm fine. Let me see."

Buffy set her hands demurely in her lap like Shirley Temple in the movies Angel would not admit enjoying in the thirties, leaving Angel free to see the number she'd done on his arm. He smiled.

I love you, Buffy

She'd taken a long time and her letters were neat but not overly precise; it was still her happy, feminine loops. The message sat in a space about three inches long, covering the tree of veins below his palm.

"That's perfect."

She looked at him nervously. "You're sure? 'Cuz it's gonna be there forever-"

"It's perfect," he repeated. "It's supposed to protect me; what better to protect me than your love?"

She blushed. He grabbed her by the waist and kissed her deeply.

Zeke rolled his eyes. "Y'all are weird. Standard black okay?"

"Sure."

Zeke filled up some ink trays and slipped on some gloves. He looked at Buffy. "You sure you don't-"

"He'll hurt you," she warned.

Zeke shrugged off the rebuff. "All right. Let's rock and roll."

Buffy had been tattooed before, but she'd had Slayer healing and there had been the whole kicking Eyghon's ass thing and then the getting rid of the tattoo before her mother saw it, so proper aftercare had really been the last thing on her mind.

The thing of it was, she knew that they were done with needles . . . and because of that little weasel Ethan Rayne, she knew that they hurt . . . but she'd never really understood that they were wounds before, until she'd seen Angel's bleed, the blood welling up from under her own name written in her own hand. She had almost wanted to ask Zeke to stop there, but Angel hadn't said anything, hadn't even flinched, and that was just her being silly-they needed to have this done. It was for Angel's safety.

Zeke wrapped Angel's tattoo in a bandage - because it was a wound - and they left him reading his porn again. Sitting in the car, Buffy felt somehow at once heavy and hollow; Angel had her name on him. She'd marked him; she'd claimed him, and he'd bled for her in the conquest.

Angel - who didn't seem to care. Why didn't he care? - said he was hungry, maybe could they get something to eat, but Buffy wasn't sure she could keep anything down and she felt guilty feeding him fast food, so she just told him numbly that she would make him something at home and they drove all the way back to the apartment in silence.

She was stupid, though, to think he'd let her keep it.

"What's wrong?" he asked as soon as they got inside, before she'd even freed her keys from the lock.

Dammit, they were stuck or something.

"Nothing." She fought with the keys some more, twisting them violently . . . that didn't work. She tried turning the handle . . . no.

Angel's brow rose. "Nothing? You've been cold to me since we left the-"

She looked up at him, wild-eyed. "You let me mark you! You-it bled, and you didn't even say anything! Why are you being so normal about this?"

In a final burst of frustration, she yanked hard on the keys. Too hard; the keys were freed from the lock, but Buffy went sprawling against the wall.

To her astonishment, Angel followed. He was on her in a second, almost preternaturally fast, pinning her in place, so close that she could feel his warmth, feel his breath on her skin.

"Turnabout is fair game," he said softly, sensually, his tone a jarring opposite to his action. "I've already marked you."

She struggled to find her voice through the shock. "What do you mean?"

Gently, he swept her hair back away from her face, off her neck, her collarbone . . . off the scar he'd left her when she'd cured him. It was barely visible, more accessible to touch than sight, but it was there and he knew it.

She knew it.

"Further questions?" he asked calmly, still atop her, still pinning her to the wall.

"No," she said quietly, and dropped the keys to the floor, bringing up both hands to bring Angel to her while she kissed him.

If Angel was surprised - which she doubted, since he had his big body crushing her to the wall - he didn't show it. He went into her hands like falling, like an act of gravity, and when she brought her mouth to his he kissed her back with enough passion that she dug her nails into his arms, her whole body tensing. When the kiss broke off, Angel pressed his lips to her scar, his mark, and she lost it; she grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him into the living room until they met resistance, until the backs of his knees hit the arm of the couch and he folded over it backwards. Buffy held him down and climbed on top of him, and then her hands were in his clothing, fighting to unfasten his belt and get his shirt off over his head without breaking off kissing him again. Punishing kisses, bruising, and Angel tried to rise off the couch to help her with his shirt and she slammed him back down so hard by his breastbone that it knocked the air out of him all at once in a harsh hollow sound. She would have liked to say that she felt bad about it, but she couldn't, because she'd succeeded in tearing Angel's shirt from him, and hers was easy after that, and her bra, and she hiked up her skirt, and it wasn't pretty or sweet but it worked, and all that mattered was she had him inside of her, deep in, all the way in, and his hands were cradling her hips as she rode him but he was looking at her-his damn compassionate eyes looked at her like looking through her, and before she came she stopped riding him and folded on him crying, and he just took her into his arms like nothing surprised him, like he was receiving a telegram.

"I didn't mean to do this to you," she cried. "I didn't want to be this girl for you."

"I like this girl," he whispered. "I like all the Buffy's."

She drew away from him, sniffling and wiping the tear tracks hastily from her cheeks the way a child does. "I'm afraid you don't know what you've bought into. You're risking your life for me; maybe you should leave. I've changed a lot since you've been gone, and I don't want you to die if you don't really-"

He looked her purposefully in the eye. "I know what I'm getting into. And even if I didn't: I want forever with you, okay?" He held her for a long moment while the last of her tears tapered out, then kissed her forehead. "You can't get rid of me that easily. I dated Darla and Drusilla for a few decades, remember? You can't outcrazy them."

Buffy fell against his shoulder laughing, and he cradled her against him again.

"It'll be all right," he murmured. "We'll get through this."

She pulled away from him enough to look him in the eye. "You can't know that."

"You're right: I can't know that there will be smooth sailing ahead. But the we part? That I know. Because I'm not going anywhere; you can't shake me. Now that I'm human, I only have one lifetime, and I'm spending the whole thing with you whether you like it or not. All the way 'til happily ever after. It's my reward, damn it, and I'm taking it. The Powers couldn't stop me; I'd like to see you try."

She grinned. "You sure know how to sweet talk a girl."

"Well, it's kind of gone out of vogue to hit girls on the head with a stick and drag them back to your cave. Now you have to do this."

"Well, I'm very moved. Fluttery eyelashes, moist panties, everything."

Angel grinned. "Don't tease. Your panties are around your knees; I know exactly how moved you are-"

Angel had to stop baiting her; she slammed him forcefully back to the couch and covered his mouth with hers. She was a pretty good sweet talker, too.

The next morning, Buffy lay in bed bathed in rosy sunlight, studying Angel's cast. She cradled his wrist and ran her fingers over the overlapping seams of the bandages, watching as each layer of gauze folded back slightly as her fingertips snagged it.

"Does it hurt?"

Angel was still heavily mired in sleep, and his voice was sleep-bogged and far away.

"Little bit."

"Can I unwrap it?"

"'F you want."

Buzzing pleasantly with excitement, Buffy carefully uncoiled the white dressings from around Angel's hand, revealing the dark twist of ink. Her mark. Her heart beat quickly within her breast and she could feel her cheeks heating, her whole body flush with adrenalin.

Buffy discarded the bandages to the floor and studied Angel's bared forearm. The tattoo was a dark swirl dancing across Angel's pale skin, accented by a flush of irritation. It was raised and slightly scabbed, but it was still her brand, and she felt herself run through with a predatory thrill and a proprietary satisfaction. She felt a burst of warmth surge between her legs and gasped quietly, closing her eyes briefly as she rode out the peak of the sensation.

"Looks good," she said finally, her eyes fluttering open. "It . . . it doesn't hurt?"

Angel's other hand slithered surreptitiously over her hip.

"No," he said simply. His voice was still quiet, and his body was still very relaxed, but his eyes looked sharp.

"That-that's good."

Angel's hand dropped to cup her bottom, and then his fingers trailed lightly over the backsides of her thighs, offered only minimal defense by her pajamas. She shivered.

"I-we should . . . now that we have you protected, we should think about what to do next," she said shakily.

"I agree," he said smoothly. His hand slipped between her thighs.

"I . . . we should-we need information, right? That god from the bookstore, she-she said that people . . . that some people might hurt me . . ."

"So we should find out who those people are," Angel finished for her.

Buffy closed her eyes and bucked against Angel's hand.

"Please, more," she whispered harshly.

"You're not paying attention," he chastised.

Buffy whined. Angel withdrew his hand. Buffy started to complain, but then Angel pulled her pajama pants and underwear down to her knees, and that more or less appeased her. He parted her legs again and slid his hand into her ready sex; he slipped three fingers into her, and she met him eagerly, thrusting keenly against him.

"Who do you know," Angel led gently, "who might be able to help us?"

Buffy's eyes were closed, and she was much more intent on enjoying Angel's other contributions to her physiosocial well being than having a Grown Up Conversation.

"Dunno," she murmured.

"Who do you know who has access to information?" Angel prodded.

She sighed and didn't answer. Angel rolled his eyes and rubbed the knuckle of his thumb firmly against Buffy's clitoris. She moaned and opened her eyes.

"Oh, Angel! I-oh, um . . . I don't know. People with . . . books? Book people? Giles?"

Angel frowned. "I don't really want to lean on Giles if we don't-"

"How come? He knows stuff; we need to know stuff. Problem solved."

Buffy sighed, closed her eyes, and leaned back to enjoy the rest of her orgasm. Angel grimaced but didn't say anything.

"It's no big deal! I just do my little Bewitched time/space travel thing to England, get us the information that you agreed we needed, and I'll be back before you know it. Don't be such a worrywart."

"I'm . . . not," Angel answered lamely. "I just-"

"You worry about me and my using my god powers; I get that," Buffy finished for him glibly, not really paying attention to the expression on his face or the amount that he'd been pacing the last half hour, "But you shouldn't, because it's totally safe and I'm totally capable. Your girlfriend is an awesome god! So just . . . I dunno, read your sign blaster book, or find something on TV or whatever while I'm gone-you know, something to take your mind off it? But really, I'll be back in no time."

She checked her reflection in the mirror and made minor adjustments - hair fluffing, lip-gloss shining, skirt straightening - and then kissed him quickly.

"Please try not to pout, sweetie," she added.

Angel frowned deeply. "I am not pouting. You're not listening to me-"

"I totally am! I'll be back in a little while-"

He took hold of her hand. "Buffy, don't-"

"Love you. I'll call you when I get there, but really, don't worry. Bye!"

And she disappeared out of the apartment, leaving Angel alone to brood.

Giles was preparing his tea in the kitchen when he heard something fall in the study. Frowning, he picked up a small axe from the kitchen table and went to investigate.

It turned out to be nothing; Cynthia's cat had knocked over some books. He righted them, set the axe down, and went back to his kettle, which he could hear whistling even from the other room.

Giles jumped half out of his skin returning to the kitchen.

"Hi!" Buffy said cheerfully, waving a little.

Giles, who was a little worried he was having a coronary event, slumped against the doorframe.

Buffy's face fell. "Oh, crap. I guess Dawn and Xander didn't call you, huh?"

Giles had liberally medicated his tea, which had, she guessed, made the story a little easier to take. Plus, she'd done some little god tricks, which by now she was getting pretty good at. The more she did, the better she got . . . she even felt less woozy, although she wasn't feeling super after the transatlantic trip. Jetlag. Buffylag. Hee.

"So, you're a god. And you just allowed some stranger you met one night in a discothèque to transform you to a higher plane of being?"

"Giles, first of all, discothèque? How old are you? Secondly, you make me sound like a hooker-"

"Still, it's a little worrying."

"Yeah, I know. But I was a little drunk - and don't give me that look; I'm young, not a hooker! - but yeah, it's a little worrying, and we're worried by-oh my God, I am such an idiot. Can I use your phone?"

Giles was, after eight years with his Slayer, completely used to Buffy's trains-of-thought derailing from the tracks, and merely nodded. She ran to his phone - "Oh my God, Giles, enter the twenty-first century already! This thing belongs in a museum!" - and then hurriedly dialed the number for the apartment . . . or as hurriedly as she could after fumbling through her mental Rolodex for the proper way to call the States from England.

"Hi," she said into the receiver once the call finally filtered through. "I got here fine. No, it's-it's fine! Would you-don't be weird. No, I just-we were talking about stuff, and I . . . I kind of forgot. I'm sorry. Yeah, it's . . . it's fine. Angel. Everything's okay; stop being so hyper. Yes. I'll be back soon, after we talk game plan. I know. Yes, I know. I love you, too. Try to relax. Bye."

"So you're back with Angel?" Giles asked as she hung up the phone.

Buffy could feel herself blush.

"Oh," she said. "Yeah. I . . . yeah. But-I know what you're thinking, but don't! It's really good, and he's . . . well, he's human now, yeah, super long story, but he's human and we're doing really well except-"

"Is he still evil?"

"What? No, I told you not to worry about that; he's human now-"

"He was working for Wolfram and Hart, historically incredibly evil, before he brought the LA branch crumbling to the ground over half a city block."

"He says that was to do good! And he got his arm twisted for this reason that's really impossible to believe unless you've met his son - yeah, I know, Angel has a son; where have we been? - but anyway, if you're cranky with him about that you have to stop because that little doing good and getting half a city block destroyed thing? Got all his friends killed, so he's pretty much paid the piper."

The look on Giles's face implied that he had not been reading the Los Angeles obituaries of late.

"Anyway, no, what I was going to say was, we're doing really well except for this thing where we think maybe gods are trying to kill us."

The funny looks kept on coming.

"I really-I haven't got any books on gods," Giles said, leading Buffy into his study, which contained so many books that suggesting it lacked tomes on a particular subject was a little hilarious, "Well, other than the classics, you know . . . the so-called myths?"

"Yeah. Those are a load of hooey."

"Yes, well. In any event, I think perhaps an oracle might be the way to go."

Giles looked through a very cluttered, though not disorganized, desk for something; Buffy looked around the room for something that wasn't boring.

"Aren't those a bunch of hooey, too?" she asked idly, coming up short on her search for not-boring.

"Well . . . no. At least, I don't believe so . . . I've never been myself, but by all accounts, oracles are genuine phenomena . . ." He brought up a battered address book from the disorder and grinned triumphantly. "Here we are."

"Your little black book? You're sending me to one of your ex's for help? I thought you said you'd never been-"

Giles frowned. "Don't be cheeky. No, an old friend of mine works as an intermediate to an oracle in, happily for you, Los Angeles. Her name is Merilinda Morrow; you can reach her at this address."

Giles scribbled an address on a piece of paper for her. She accepted it glumly.

"Is she proper and British, too?"

"Your wit's improved," he said dryly.

Buffy frowned. "Angel said that, too."

"Perhaps it's true. Be careful traveling back to him, won't you?"

"Are you kicking me out?"

"Of course not. You're welcome to stay as long as you-"

Buffy narrowed her eyes. "You have a woman coming over, don't you? I leave you alone for a year and a half, and you turn all Hugh Hefner on me. Gross."

Buffy's return flight to Los Angeles landed almost in Angel's arms. And once she got her bearings - which happened a lot sooner for her than it did for Angel, who stared, dazed and blinking, at his newly reappeared girlfriend for a long, long minute - she closed the distance, all but jumping into his embrace. She almost said something smart about how see, Angel, nothing to worry about!, but he looked so drawn and he held to her so tightly that she thought maybe she better just kiss him and whisper, "I missed you."

"So Giles wants me to go see this . . . oracle?" Buffy stabbed later that evening, when enough time had passed for Angel's Buffy used her god powers to cross an ocean and visit Giles gloom to lift.

Angel furrowed his brow. "I thought Los Angeles's oracles were dead."

Buffy frowned. "Well, that's no good." She brightened. "But that was the right word, ‘oracle?' 'Cuz I was going to say ‘Oreck'-"

"That's a vacuum cleaner," Angel replied absently. He got up off the bed and started out of the room.

Buffy followed him. "Hey, what's gotten into you? Where are you going?"

She didn't really know what to expect, his departure was so sudden, but she was surprised to find him frozen in the living room with the phone dangling uselessly from his hand, buzzing its heavy dial tone.

"Angel?" she asked cautiously.

He looked over at her vaguely, and his words came out coated with Novocain. "I, um, I just wanted to call and check on-to see what the deal with the oracles was. And then I-there isn't . . . there's no one to call anymore."

He lowered his eyes, exhausted under the weight of this realization. A sick feeling rose in Buffy's throat. Slowly, she went toward him and took the phone from his hand, replaced it gently on the cradle so that the horrible buzz of the dial tone would stop and maybe Angel would snap out of his daze. That didn't do it, so she took him in her arms. She thought he'd resist, but he went so limply that she thought about shock, thought about nursing him back to health when he'd come back from hell, how easy he had complied not only to her word but also her hand. Stretched so far she had feared he would not return.

She wanted to tell him that it was okay, that everything was okay, but it wasn't, and so she just held him.

She didn't know what to say, so she just held him.

5. What's the Worst That Could Happen?

Buffy was eager to get some answers to her questions, and Giles believed that the oracle was the way to do it, but she couldn't go now. Not yet; she couldn't leave because Angel wasn't okay. He said he was okay, but he wasn't okay. She could tell the difference.

He was quieter than usual, but he was never a really big talker, so she wasn't really worried about that. The thing that worried her was that he acted as though he was afraid to let her out of his sight: he was never more than a room away from her, and usually he was much closer than that, on top of her, touching her, in her lap begging for affection like a puppy. She loved Angel. She loved touching Angel. And, under normal circumstances, she would have been thrilled with the extra attention. But there was no way that she could convince herself that this wasn't about his dead family, and how he was afraid that something was going to happen to her and he would be left all alone, in a human life all alone.

She watched him sleep - the only time she really got to herself now, she thought guiltily - the second night after The Thing With the Phone, as she'd started calling the incident in her head, had happened, and wondered if she hadn't done a horrible, horrible thing in making him human. If he was still a vampire, he could just forget, couldn't he? He could just fade away into the underworld and become a shadow, and he wouldn't be hurting and crazy like this, and-no. That was stupid; that would be a horrible existence, and she would hate herself if she'd allowed that to happen to Angel. This was better. He had wanted this. And this-well, this was only a momentary pain, and it would heal, and he'd get better.

They could be happy together, and once they got all this mess with his grief and her divinity sorted out, they could build a life together.

Simple, right?

After three days of effective house arrest, Buffy felt stifled and restless and slightly ridiculous, and gently told Angel that she'd be going to the oracle's that evening. During her imprisonment, she had called up the woman whose name Giles had given her, and Mrs. Morrow had informed her that no, the oracle wasn't dead and yes, she was seeing people - and, you know, the future and stuff - so come on down. Bring an offering.

Angel wasn't thrilled by the news, but he tried not to sulk openly. His attempt to show Buffy he wasn't upset, though, was to give her space-which translated in real time to him avoiding her, holing himself up in the bedroom and brooding. Buffy didn't know what to do; she knew that Angel was doing what he thought she wanted, but it wasn't what she wanted, and she didn't know how to explain to him that he was being ridiculous without telling him . . . that he was being ridiculous. And that certainly was not the tone one wanted to strike in this situation.

"Honey," she tried, peaking her head into the darkened bedroom.

Angel looked up at her from his brood. He was sitting on the bed - just sitting, not even pretending to read or anything; God knew what he'd been sitting in the dark thinking about all this time - with his leg stretched out; that probably wasn't good. Why wouldn't he just stop being a stubborn idiot and let her fix it already? And how mad would he really be if she just did it without his permission? He could only fume for so long, right? And at the end of his hissy fit, there wouldn't be a gap in his femur. Everyone wins.

"Honey," she said gently, coming to sit by him, placing her hand over his. "I have to go soon. On my errand."

He flinched a little, despite himself. Then he flinched again because he'd let himself flinch.

"Okay," he said, trying to sound upbeat and crashing and burning. "You're sure you don't want me to-"

Buffy shook her head. "Angel, you know I'd love you to. But Giles said that she's not easy to get to, and with your leg like that-"

Angel's cheeks hollowed a little. "I get it. Okay."

"But-"

His face flooded with remorse. "I didn't-I don't want to fight."

"Then let's not fight."

He sighed. "I don't mean to. I'm just-"

"Hurt? Scared? In lots of pain because you're really, really stubborn and stupid and won't let me fix your leg in five seconds with my super easy god powers?"

Angel shot her a brief glare, but then relented: "All of those things, yes."

Buffy pulled him into a hug and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "It's okay. I still love you."

Angel's hands curled around her shoulders. "Buffy, I-"

She pulled away from him, looked him in the face. "Please don't ask me not to go. Baby, please. I wouldn't go if it wasn't really important, but it is. Really important. We have a lot of really big, scary questions that need answers, and Giles says this oracle lady is the one who has them. So I've gotta go."

He nodded. "I know."

She kissed him quickly. "There's my boy. I'll be back in no time; you'll see-"

"Except for the it being really hard to get to and maybe taking days thing," he countered dryly.

"Angel-"

He sighed. "I'm joking. Except I'm not. Just . . . I'm worried for you. What if something happens to you and I won't know, I won't be there to help you-"

She smiled cockily. "I'm a god. What's the worst that could happen?"

Angel still looked worried. Maybe more worried. Buffy sighed.

"I'll be fine. I promise to be extra careful and look both ways before I cross the street, and not take candy from strangers, and all that. Okay? You don't have to worry about me."

Angel nodded uncertainly. "But I do. Worry about you."

"I know you do, sweetie, and I appreciate that. But I wish you'd worry a little less. Loosen up! Why don't you try and have some fun while I'm gone?"

She stood and started out of the room. Angel rose painfully and followed her.

"Fun?" he asked apprehensively.

"Sure," she said, slipping into her jacket. "Go to a movie or something. I'm sure there's something boring and foreign playing somewhere."

He smiled wanly.

"See? You're smiling already." She grabbed him by the shirtfront and pulled him in for a sound kiss. "Miss me?"

"I will," he said seriously. "I do already."

She gave him a look. "I haven't even left yet. Don't be depressing."

Buffy was a step out the front door when something struck her. She patted her pockets and then cursed.

"Oh, crap! An offering! I'm supposed to bring something to the oracle, like . . . payment, or a present or something. Angel, help."

Angel disappeared into the apartment for a moment and returned a moment later with a shiny, red apple. Buffy frowned.

"You think this'll do it? I don't come off . . . you know, kind of cheap?"

"I think any immortal would appreciate it."

He kissed her again.

"Please be careful," he implored, meeting her eyes.

"You know me," she replied glibly. The look in Angel's eyes was enough; a pang of regret resounded throughout her.

"I will. I promise," she amended, and pulled him in for one last kiss. "Please try and have fun while I'm gone. I promise, it won't hurt."

Angel even smiled again, wryly. "We'll see."

Angel was usually patient, but he was anxious waiting for Buffy and it made him restless. He paced around the apartment, moving from the bed to the couch to the chair, picking up books and finding himself unable to focus on a word. Finally he grabbed his coat and decided to take a walk; maybe that would clear his head. At least it would give him something to do.

His head, it turned out, needed a great deal of clearing, and he walked further than he should have allowed himself, further than he could walk back comfortably. It was getting late, so he found a little diner and decided to get some dinner; he was getting hungry and it would afford him the chance to rest his leg. He was healing, and it was getting easier to walk on, but he'd pushed himself too far and it would be a punishing journey going back.

Angel had never eaten anything on the menu, so he took a long time deciding, stretching his leg out on the seat in front of him. He finally ordered a cheeseburger - the waitress was beginning to look at him like she suspected he was just using the booth for the seat - in haste and leaned back against the torn, faded vinyl and closed his eyes. He wondered where Buffy was. Maybe she was home right now. God, he wanted-

"Hey, mister, you got a light?"

Angel opened his eyes to the feather-delicate voice. A pair of pale gray eyes locked onto his; he dropped the gaze to the speaker's plump plum lips, half-hidden behind a thin cigarette, her opalescent skin and platinum hair.

He blinked; it took him a moment to seize upon a train of thought.

"No," he said finally. "I'm sorry; I don't smoke."

The pale girl brought the hand with the cigarette away from her face, folding the fag into her palm and then spiriting it away into her white dress.

"Bummer."

She was sitting in the booth next to his and had been speaking to him from over the seat; now she leaned across the divide, spilling her platinum hair carelessly and showing off more of her white skin, her breasts plumping at her décolletage, one strap of her gown slipping a bit from her pale shoulder.

"I don't know why you came here," she said conversationally. "The food sucks."

Just then, the waitress set a plate down in front of him. Angel thanked her and turned back to the girl.

"The service is good," he said cautiously. "You're eating here."

"I'm not. I was waiting for someone, and now he's not coming to get me." Her violet mouth pulled into a frown. "He just abandoned me, how do you like that? How's your burger?"

He didn't know; he hadn't had any. Because he was so new at eating things, he didn't really like to eat in front of people he didn't know. So, really, people who weren't Buffy. He wished he knew where she was. He was wishing, the more time dragged on, that he hadn't left the apartment to begin with.

The sandwich looked all right, and it was - he guessed - the appropriate weight and consistency for what it was. But if he had to guess, he would have guessed that the only ingredients were grease and . . . grease. He had difficulty swallowing.

"I think you may be right about this place," he murmured, wincing, and tried vainly to wash the grease from his mouth with his water.

"Told you," she said sullenly.

Angel got his wallet out and meted out payment for his one bite of fat and oil, and stood to leave. The pale girl followed him like an eager puppy.

"Do you have a car? 'Cuz maybe you could give me a ride-"

He shook his head. "I'm sorry, no. I don't have a car. I could give you money for a cab-"

She frowned. "I don't just take money from strange men. You're making me sound like the kind of girl I'm not."

It took Angel a moment to work out what she was implying, and he started to defend himself, and then to apologize, and ended up - knowing already that he would regret it - making amends by offering to walk her home.

She pounced eagerly on the idea, smiling brightly. "That'd be great, thanks! I knew you were a gentleman, not like the creep who left me here-"

She bounded out the door, and Angel followed, the pain in his leg not too much dulled by his short respite at the diner, his whole being wishing he'd stayed home to wait for Buffy.

The woman that Giles had referred Buffy to, the woman who would lead her to the oracle, was a really long way downtown, a far drive from the apartment. It took Buffy an hour and a half to get there, and it was almost dark by the time she arrived. She wished she'd left earlier; she wished she'd brought Angel, his painful leg notwithstanding. She felt very alone: the path looks endless at the first step, and it would have been nice to have someone to take it with her. Angel always made her feel stronger, braver, smarter, better. She'd made fun of him for "missing her already," but she found herself missing him now, too. What was it that he'd said . . . "turnabout is fair game?" Damn him and his psychic . . . ness.

Speaking of. The psychic friend. Her building was in a shady neighborhood - even when she wasn't hunting vampires, Buffy couldn't ever seem to get uptown - and the elevator ride to the tenth floor was just short of terrifying. It shook, rattled, and rolled, and funnest of all, the lights flickered on and off. Buffy also wished she had some pepper spray or something just in case her travel companion, the hygienically-challenged gentleman in the overcoat, decided to get friendly. (Of course she knew how to defend herself . . . but that would involve touching him. And she was really sure she did not want that to happen.) When the doors opened to deposit Buffy on her floor, she practically ran out. Terra firma! Hallelujah.

Buffy checked the number she'd written down again, and knocked on 10J. There was a long pause - Crap. There's no one here; I came all the way down here for nothing, she thought - and then a cheery, English voice piped, "The door's open, dear, come on in!"

Buffy felt a little weird just walking into someone's apartment, but she felt really dirty standing in the hallway, so she pushed the door open.

The apartment was cramped and cluttered with doilies, pictures of smiling grandchildren, and small porcelain figures. Buffy counted three cats. Giles had weird friends.

"Mrs. Morrow?" she called hesitantly. A cat sashayed up to her and rubbed sensually against her ankles.

"In the kitchen, dear."

Buffy disentangled herself from her feline admirer and made her way toward the source of the voice.

The kitchen was small and Bradytastic, with seventies gold appliances and properly horrible wallpaper. It was warm and the air was heavy with a sweet smell. A short, round, widely-smiling, gray-haired woman was pulling a tray of cookies out of the gold oven.

"I would have come and fetched you, dear," she said happily. "But my snickerdoodles would have burned."

"Oh, that's okay," Buffy said awkwardly, and hugged her arms around herself. She felt slightly assaulted by the amount of cheerfulness being thrown at her, and - looking down - she found that her whiskered paramour had followed her into the kitchen.

"So, you're Rupert's girl," Mrs. Morrow said, setting the cookies down on the counter and taking a good look at Buffy.

"Yeah. I'm Buffy."

"And you want to see the oracle?" she asked, gently prodding at her cookies with a spatula. "I hope you're not in any trouble, dear."

"I hope so, too."

The girl - she said her name was "Dove," and he almost asked her what kind of name that was, but then she asked for his name - lived in an unfun part of town several blocks further from the apartment. By the time they finally got there, Angel's leg hurt so badly that he asked to sit down, even though he wanted badly to leave. She was getting clingy. Making doe eyes.

And she liked to talk.

"And then my last boyfriend, well, I don't know what it is, I don't think it's that I make bad choices, it's more that bad men are attracted to me, you know?"

"I do. Look, do you have a phone? I need to call a cab; I can't walk home, my leg-"

"Yeah, I saw you limping; you hurt or something?" She went through some drawers and cabinets and came up empty. "I don't think there's a phone book. Phone's over there." She pointed.

"I broke it a few weeks ago," Angel replied sparsely.

"You should let me give you a massage; I'm really good at it."

He eyed her warily. "Thanks, but don't you think offering strange men massages makes you sound like the kind of girl you're not?"

She scowled. Angel limped to the phone. He frowned. There were several women's phone numbers scrawled by the phone in an angular handwriting. Didn't Dove say she wasn't that kind of girl? This didn't look like a woman's apartment - it was very spartan, and what little furniture there was was modern and sleek, silver and black - and she didn't know where to find the phonebook, whether there was one? Angel didn't feel good about this; he definitely didn't want to be here with this girl when her pissed off loser boyfriend came home. It was bad enough dealing with the fallouts of good deeds when you were a full-strength vampire; a beat up human didn't really have the best odds.

Angel dialed the operator and waited, putting all his weight on his good leg, until they picked up.

"Can I get the number for a cab company, please?"

"Which one, please?"

He closed his eyes. Good. He needed this. "I don't know, any of them."

"I'm sorry, sir, I need the name of a specific cab company."

"With due respect, ma'am, if I had a business card or a telephone book giving me the name of a specific cab company, I'd also have their number and I wouldn't need you. Please, just dial the first number you've got; it's not a threat to national security."

"I'm sorry, sir, I need a specific-"

Angel hung up before he said something foul.

"No luck?" Dove asked. She'd moved to the couch where he'd been sitting, the only place to sit in the room that wasn't a confusing, Swedish, orthopedic nightmare.

Between a rock and the increasing pain in his leg, Angel reluctantly joined her on the sofa.

"No."

Dove gently laid her hand on his bad leg. "You really should let me give you a massage. I'm really good at it, everyone says. It'll make you feel lots better."

She brought her hand up and touched his face, let her fingers trace the curve of his cheek. Angel was a little shocked at her audacity, but he was more shocked that he withstood it.

"I don't bite," she added softly.

Angel drew away finally, taking a conscious action to pull away from her touch.

"No," he said, the word coming difficultly, like the first word out of anesthesia. "No, I have to go home."

Dove's violet lips plumped into a pout. "You'd rather walk all the way home on your poor, hurt leg than stay here and let me help you feel better? Am I that horrible?"

Angel hesitated. His first instinct was to comfort her, because he was a gentleman and because he was the hero and he didn't leave damsels distressing, but beyond that he was starting to feel . . . stupid. Like he was missing something.

Something dangerous.

Dove put her hand on his leg again and slowly, with not much pressure, began to knead the muscles above his knee. Immediately it hurt, but Angel recognized that it was releasing some of the tension and pressure and taking the aggregate of pain away.

But he still didn't want her to.

"Don't," he said softly, and she met his eyes for a moment, and she smiled, and for a second Angel saw a glimmer of hands bound with twine, mouths twisted with silent screams, legs parted forcefully, and always gray, smiling eyes.

He jumped back against the arm of the couch.

"Don't," he said again, and he looked at the girl sitting there, looking innocent and confused but huge and dangerous, and he knew he was in much, much more trouble than getting into it with a jealous boyfriend or whatever Buffy would do to him if she found out he'd taken some girl back to her apartment and gotten felt up a little.

"I thought you were human," Angel said quietly. "I didn't-I'm usually really good at spotting fakes."

Dove smiled. "You look for demons. I'm at the other end of the spectrum."

And he hadn't, until she said that, actually had all the pieces fall into place, and then the word dropped into his head.

"You're a god," he said.

She smiled. "Smart and beautiful."

There was a knock at the door and she stood and answered it.

Dove walked back in the room with a shadow of two men, and Angel felt his heart grow heavy.

"It's going to be a really, really bad night, isn't it?" he asked no one in particular.

"That depends wholly," one of the men said. "On how long you live."

Angel knew it was stupid. He was human now, and he was injured and he was weak and hungry and pretty much completely sapped of energy, both physically and emotionally. To go up against three gods would be a hair's breadth of suicidal.

He fought anyway.

"It's really not the easiest of treks out to Sila's place. But I guess it's a safety issue; two oracles were killed a few years back right here in Los Angeles. Can you believe that? What is this world coming to, when prophets aren't even safe in their own shrines . . . ?"

"I heard about that," Buffy said numbly, biting into another snickerdoodle.

"Anyway, if you stick to those directions, you should be fine. Just remember: you want to look for a lotus; you know what that is, don't you, dear?"

"It's a flower, right?"

"That's a smart girl."

Buffy relaxed; she'd almost said cricket.

"-Rupert's always said you're a very bright young lady, and you look like you're in good shape, so the physical bit shouldn't be a problem."

"How long do you think it'll take? I left my boyfr-someone at home, and he's kind of worried about me."

"It should be several hours. I'd give him a call; you won't be going home to him tonight. Feel free to use my phone, dear."

Buffy finished her cookie and used Mrs. Morrow's gold phone to call the apartment. She hung up after eight rings. Maybe he'd taken her advice and gone out somewhere fun. Well, good for him. And good for her; she wouldn't have to worry about him, then.

It was dark when Angel woke, and his body thrummed with considerably more pain than just the somewhat reassuringly familiar ache from his leg. He felt as though he'd been tanned and stretched in preparation for processing his hide for leathermaking; he hurt so profoundly and so deeply that he felt as though his body had been reworked into a new substance, and his skin was so tender it sang.

After a long while - his bearings left a lot to be desired just now - he realized he was sitting in the dark, and there was something wrong with his arms. . . . He tried, experimentally, to move them and found he could not, then looked around for them in the gloom and found he could not see them, and for a panicked moment he was very worried that someone had made off with them. After a minute, though, the light bulb went off and he realized he couldn't see or move his arms because they were bound behind his chair.

Yup. Really bad night, he though. He would have said it, except there seemed to be some manner of cloth stuffed in his mouth. It was rough and smelled vaguely of oil, and it prevented him from complaint or wry comment. He tried to spit it out and succeeded only in gagging himself on it. Shit. This needing to breathe thing was a pain in the ass sometimes.

Angel pulled against his restraints, but they were tied true and the struggling only made the sore tendons in his awkwardly stretched shoulders flare with pain. He stopped straining and slumped down in the seat, exhausted by the tiny effort. Shit. Bad, bad night.

Suddenly, a piercing sliver of blinding white tore through the darkness. Angel flinched and turned his face away as the tear opened up into a larger wound; he missed the shadows stepping into the bright and therefore didn't realize there was anyone else there until he heard them, until he smelled them.

He was human, but the senses were still pretty good, even if he wasn't trying very hard. He turned back to the painful light when he realized he wasn't alone, and squinted, trying to give features to the black cutouts.

There were three of them. Two of them were very near him, and the third held back-the leader, Angel would bet, if he knew anything about this kind of thing . . . and he did. Once his eyes became a little more accustomed to the light, he was surprised.

Two of the shadows were the men from Dove's apartment. The one hanging behind the other two, the leader, was the one who had spoken to him, who had told him how bad his night would get depended on how long he stayed alive. Neither of these things surprised him.

The surprise was in the third figure. In that it was a woman's, and that it was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. She was Greek, dark-skinned and with black hair and eyes, with features so severe that they looked as thought they were carved from stone. Angel never liked seeing a gang with women in it; you could never tell which way they went, whether they were there because they were really that good, better than the men, or because they were somebody's girl. It kept him on edge, the not knowing.

And then she turned and her inky eyes caught his gaze, as quick and focused as a hawk's, and he knew, in the pit of his stomach, in an instant, that she was there because she was better than anything they had ever seen, better than anything anyone had ever seen. She was the action of death.

"Glad to see you're awake," the man in back - the leader - said. "I hope you don't find the accommodations too unpleasant."

It was all Angel could do to tear his eyes away from the woman, even though he was glad for the distraction. The leader nodded to Angel, and the other man removed the gag. Angel took in a gulp of air too greedily and coughed half of it back up.

"Thanks for having me," he said finally. "I love what you've neglected to do with the place."

"I was going to hire a professional, but really-you can't get this kind of ambiance without doing it yourself."

"I hear it's hard to hire good torturers anymore," Angel replied weakly.

The man gave him a long look. "Chomping at the bit, are we?"

Angel swallowed roughly. He could feel the oil of the rag coating his tongue, his teeth, the roof of his mouth. His stomach churned; he wished he'd choked down that horrible burger. Even that would have been better than essence of oily rag.

"I figure there's no point in dancing around the inevitable. You want something from me, and if you're keeping me in a dark room tied to a chair, you're not planning on getting it through discourse."

"True," the leader said at length, his voice tinged with regret. "This is Mister Camalotz," he added, nodding to the other man. He was short and dark, South American. His arms were covered with intricate tattoo work. Angel's eyes got caught in the pattern; he thought about the hours it had taken to sketch out the twists and turns, the hours the man had spent under the needle. "Do you know what his name means?"

"No," Angel said. It wasn't Spanish; it was an old language he didn't speak.

"It means ‘Sudden-Bloodletter.' He beheaded an entire people, brought a kingdom to its knees."

Angel's face pinched with revulsion before he could stop it. "Quite a résumé."

"He doesn't speak, so you'll have to volunteer information. I'm afraid it may make the process rather longer than usual."

Angel didn't say anything.

"This is Eris." He nodded to the woman. "She doesn't speak much, either, but she's frighteningly good at what she does; she has more blood on her hands than even Mr. Camalotz, here. She also tends to inspire others to bloodshed. It's her particular gift."

Eris was unmoving, watching Angel like a bird of prey stalking its next meal, her eyes unblinking and gorgeous, feral. A shiver of nausea coiled through Angel's stomach.

"Here's the long and short of it, Angel," the as-of-yet nameless leader went on, taking a step closer to Angel, meeting his eyes. "We have business with your lady friend, and we know you know how to find her. If you help us, just answer a few questions about her, we won't have to go through this silly mess of slicing you open and playing with your newly human insides." He smiled a fox-in-the-henhouse smile. "And I'd just like to make one thing clear. That chickenshit piece of art you've got carved on your arm will keep us from killing you. And that's it. And I know that you know full well that there are many ways to destroy a man short of killing him."

"So," he finished conversationally. "Is there anything you'd like to say before we begin, to avoid this whole unnecessary mess?"

Angel looked at the hours of needlework on Camalotz's arm, at the dark horrible shine of Eris's eyes. And he swallowed and looked the leader dead in the eye.

"The only useful thing that you can do with that mouth," Angel said evenly. "Is use it to suck me off, because we are not going to talk."

The leader smiled, unfazed, and clapped an avuncular hand on Angel's shoulder. Angel winced despite himself.

"I realize," he purred close to Angel's ear, sensual and dangerous. "That you were getting tortured before it was fashionable. But when was the last time you were tortured as a human? I'm not saying never, because by all accounts you were a pretty licentious youth, but it's been at least two centuries, and believe me, there is a difference."

There was a brief flicker in Angel's eyes, something that might have been recognition, or acceptance. Or fear. The leader saw it, but he didn't have time to identify it; it was only fleeting.

He stood and started out of the room.

"Help him remember," he instructed Eris and Camalotz, and shut the door, leaving Angel alone in the dark with his thoughts and the gods of torture and strife.

Buffy was cranky - and maybe a little sweaty . . . ew - when she finally found, through the dank and gloom of Los Angeles's less shiny sectors after dark, a lotus blossom. It was inscribed and painted, worn and peeling, on a door in a back alley beneath a surveillance technology office. Buffy smiled despite herself; that was the humor of the Powers, for you. We see everything.

The lotus door wasn't locked, and Buffy passed through it without a problem. Behind it was a steep set of dimly lit stairs; Buffy carefully started down them, wishing that the words belly of the beast weren't resounding in her head.

The stairs ended at an antechamber lit with candles. It was hard to tell through the dim light, but this room looked different, almost like it belonged in another building. It was far removed from the cramped, cracked stairs lit with a weak fluorescent bulb; the furnishings were lush and dark and it felt rich and old.

Buffy didn't feel hunted anymore, but she did feel alone. There was no one here, not anywhere. Wasn't there supposed to be an oracle at the end of her tunnel?

"Hello?" she tried.

Her echoing call was meant with silence.

"Well, crap," she muttered. She picked up a candle and started further into the dark room, something she really didn't want to do.

Eris and the bloodletter lit a small kerosene lamp in the corner of the room, igniting a dull yellow glow and exciting a nest of indolent shadows from their sleep. The flat, irritating smell sparked a connection in Angel's mind-that would be kerosene on that rag, then. His stomach churned.

They were getting their tools out. They were slow and methodical and not showy or loud about it, which bothered Angel-this meant they were serious about their work, that they loved it. They weren't torturing him for information about Buffy, but because they lived for it. They were built for it.

Angel wondered if their boss knew this. If he cared.

The bloodletter had few tools, all knives. He laid them out, shining under the sickly glow of the kerosene lamp, his small, brown hands hovering carefully, reverentially over them. Altar. Angel looked them over, identified their uses. Shallow cuts, deep cuts, snagging the flesh, opening the flesh. He mentally sized how far they could sink into his stomach, his chest, his limbs.

Eris unfolded a leather satchel with at least a dozen tools: knives, clippers, hammers, brands. Her strong bronze fingers moved over the slender silver objects slowly, meditatively, taking count, checking for soundness. Feeling the souls of the instruments. Angel closed his eyes, nausea rolling through his stomach. He recognized that feeling. He remembered that feeling. She was an artist, and he had been her disciple once.

"This is beneath us."

Angel opened his eyes. It was obviously Eris who had spoken - since the leader had told him Camalotz was mute - and she was looking at him, her black eyes endless and pitiless. Her voice was deep and dark and frighteningly sensual, like being pushed against a wall and fondled, and it reverberated behind his breastbone.

"You and him . . . or you and me?" Angel asked cautiously. He didn't take his eyes off her. He didn't feel safe to take his eyes off her, the way you wouldn't if you were in a room with a wolf, or a tiger.

Eris glanced at Camalotz, still bent over his knives.

"He is not my equal," she said dismissively. "He cares only for his fetish, this splitting of veins. A thing of beauty, but-"

"Pedestrian?" Angel guessed.

Her head inclined a tiny amount.

"But you and me . . . ?" Angel asked.

"You have been my child for over two centuries," she said, as unmoving and uncompassionate as a bronze statue. "You worked my art, and then you drank my sacrament once you balked at being my adherent. This is not how I wanted to meet you in flesh. This is beneath us."

"But you're still going to-" He nodded to her toolkit.

"Of course. I am not stupid. If this is what is required to buy my passage to the victorious side, I will lay you down as sacrifice. I am willing to do this."

He frowned. "What do you mean, ‘victorious side?'"

Eris ignored him. She began to unbutton his shirt. Her movements were slow but not sensual; she was studying the appearing flesh with the analytical interest of a perfect predator. Once he was unbuttoned, she parted the fallen sides to bare his chest fully, and rested her bronze fingers on the bandage still wrapped around his middle.

"Still carrying old wounds from your fall," she said in her dark honey voice. She selected a pair of small shears from her tool kit and cut the bandage right up the center. Angel noted her care, her skill; he could feel the cold metal of the clippers on his flesh, they were so close, but she never snipped him. She cut a thin dark line from one end of the dressings to the other, and it fell from around him. Eris leaned close to him and removed it. He could feel her strong fingers by his ribs and smell her scent: the firing of metal.

Eris set the husk of bandages by the bloodletter, watching them darkly with his four knives, and turned back to Angel. She set her fingers on his bared ribs, the healing bruises the bandages had covered. They darkened under her fingers, and Angel could feel the wounds growing ripe again. He winced.

"Slayed a dragon and couldn't save your family. Tell me you don't belong to me, boy."

The image of Spike dusting - inches from him, as he reached out to pull him back, ashes filling his hand - flashed through his head, suddenly, violently. Like it was shot in there.

He gasped at it cleared. Eris was regarding him coolly, her dark eyes calm, endless. She was holding a short, curved knife.

"Ready to begin?"

The room at the bottom of the stairs wasn't just a room. It was a house, a universe. It was forever. Buffy wandered for hours fruitlessly - her candle burning to wax rivulets hugging her hand, burning to a flicker, burning out - before she realized she was being incredibly stupid.

She closed her eyes and thought, I want to see the oracle.

Nothing happened. No images, no tug as the universe pulled her to where she wanted to go.

A hot burst of frustration erupted within her, and she cried out harshly.

"You could have just called before," a soft, woodwind voice murmured from behind her.

Buffy whirled around. A delicate Thai woman, the very definition of calm, was sitting tranquilly on one of the low settees that had - Buffy knew this; she would bet anything - been empty the last time Buffy had set her eyes on it, only seconds before.

"I . . . I don't know what you mean," Buffy said finally.

The woman blinked her serene brown eyes. Buffy felt a little mesmerized by the simple movement, bewitched.

"Once you enter my sanctum, you only need to call me. If your intentions are pure, I'll come to you."

"So all the time I spent wandering around this . . . maze . . . thing . . ."

"I hope you gained something from the experience," the woman said apologetically.

Buffy frowned, but she felt her anger dissipating anyway.

"You're Sila? The oracle?"

"I'm Sila," the Thai woman agreed, bowing her head slightly. "The oracle."

Buffy studied her for a second. Her posture, her eyes, her incredibly tranquil voice . . . all of that made her seem so old, but she wore a modern haircut and a dress that Buffy had seen at Barney's not too long ago. She was like Angel: impossible to place time-wise, but probably old somehow.

"Okay," Buffy said, deciding to try and think of her like Angel and trust her that way; they needed to work together; she couldn't be all nervous around her. "I'm Buffy. Or do you . . . do you know that?"

Sila smiled. "I did know that, but let's get something out of the way: I'm an oracle, not a psychic. I am a conduit between you and the Powers; I do not get Visions; I do not see the future."

"But you know who I am."

"Now I do. The Powers are very good about keeping me informed in the here and now."

"Meaning . . . ?"

Sila searched for an answer for a moment. "Meaning . . . the moment I see you, I understand things about you. Your name, pieces of your past, present, and future."

"Weird."

"At first. Not for many years. Now it is just how I experience life."

"Cool." Something struck her, and she fumbled in her jacket pockets for a moment. "This is for you." She thrust the apple - slightly less shiny than when she'd left the apartment, but probably still good, right? - at the oracle.

Sila smiled. "How delightful. Thank you."

Buffy was surprised, but pleased. "You're welcome."

Sila patted the settee beside her. "Sit. Shall we begin?"

Buffy sat awkwardly. "Okay. Um, yeah. I have . . . some questions. Some of them are . . . kind of weird."

Sila smiled kindly. "Generally, one does not come to an oracle for questions about the mortgage and one's love life."

Buffy brightened significantly. "I guess that's true. I bet you get all kinds of weird demon-y questions, huh?"

Sila inclined her head, still smiling.

"Anyway, I . . . kind of became a god recently."

"I know. Are congratulations in order?"

"I think so. I think it's pretty cool, anyway. The thing is . . . we - my boyfriend and I - we've kind of been thinking that maybe . . . maybe everything isn't okay with it. Like . . . maybe there's something bad behind it."

Buffy waited.

Sila studied her face for a moment, and then said, "Buffy, I feel I should tell you: I'm somewhat limited in the responses I can give you. You need-well, it's usually best if you ask ‘yes' or ‘no' questions, because then it's the easiest for me to give you direct answers."

Buffy's heart dropped a little. "Oh. Okay."

She spent a moment formulating a ‘yes' or ‘no' question.

"Um . . . so . . . are we right? Or . . . I guess it's mostly Angel . . . but-my becoming a god, was it for a bad reason?"

Sila hesitated, so Buffy rephrased: "Did somebody want it for a bad reason?"

The oracle nodded. "Yes."

Buffy sighed. "Crap. Of course. Um . . . let's see. Is . . . is there still something I can do about it?"

Sila nodded. "Yes."

"Cool. Um, Angel said-" Her mind caught on something and refused to be dislodged. "Okay. This lady - well, this goddess, I guess - at the bookstore told us how to protect Angel, and I was kind of . . . I'm not sure we figured it out right. Did we? I mean, the tattoo and everything?"

Sila's face pinched in concentration. "Yes, but . . ." She frowned deeply. "But I'm afraid he's-" She looked up, the tranquil seas of her eyes enraged with the turmoil of concern. "Telling you this somewhat oversteps my bounds, but I believe that you're on the right side. Your Angel is in trouble."

The breath stilled in Buffy's chest. "What?"

"Some of - those who oppose you - they've taken him. Your mark protects his life, but they can still-you do not know the things they are capable of."

Buffy stood. "I have to go."

Sila followed her movement. "I can give you the address."

The leader had told Angel that being tortured as a human was different. Being tortured by a god he didn't mention, but that was, if Angel were to guess, where the real bitch was.

Eris started with her tools only as a physician does-to test basic soundness and operating systems. Thresholds. She ran her curved knife down his chest like unzipping him - Camalotz perked like a hound scenting a fox as Angel's red, red blood beaded around the shining blade and coursed down his pale skin - but that was barely skin deep, a test. She spent a long time watching the blood's descent-she liked it, but not in the same way as the bloodletter. She watched Angel bleed with the same involved interest as a painter studying her latest work. He knew the feeling, and he could feel the uncomfortable memory crawling under his skin. Tell me you don't belong to me, boy.

She spent a long time surveying her work, and then put the little curved knife away. She selected a wrench from her leather satchel, and walked around the back of Angel's chair. Angel closed his eyes; he didn't like her where he couldn't see her, and he was fairly certain he knew what was coming. He was right, and he bore it, teeth gritted, stomach roiling, as Eris slowly, methodically broke the last three fingers on his right hand.

He was sweating slightly when she came back around into his field of sight. He didn't say anything, just stared back at her infinite black gaze.

"No," she said finally. "That's not going to work, is it?"

And then she knelt before him and put her hands to him again, and that's when the bad started.

Beneath her fingers, old wounds reawakened. Bruises long since faded to nothing bloomed like poisoned blossoms; scars long dead opened in sudden bursts of scarlet. Angel's body, throbbing with profound hurt since he'd woken in this strange dark room, relearned the meaning of physical pain as it relived hundreds of years of maladies.

But nothing compared to the damage she wreaked on his mind. As her hands passed over him, his mind crackled with chaotic static as it was bombarded with the most horrible images of his life. Spike was only the beginning, a brief bland taste compared to what lay in store for him.

It occurred to him, in a brief anguished moment of respite, that since he bore Buffy's mark, he couldn't die from this.

He would have to endure it forever.

Buffy tried to will herself to Angel's side and found she couldn't. The images of her lover, of the place where he was, didn't even surface in her head. For a panicked moment, she thought that maybe he was dead, but then she remembered the tattoo, her mark keeping him safe, and Sila's words. If there was an address for where Angel was being kept right now, surely he was still intact. The explanation was more magic than mundane.

Someone else must be willing just as hard to keep her out.

Well, there was a solution for that.

She would just have to do things the old-fashioned way.

Angel hadn't been lying: he had a long track record with torture. He and torture knew each other very well, on both sides of the blade.

There are three basic reasons for torturing someone: they have something you want and they won't give it to you, someone they know has something you want and they won't give it to you, or you just want to. These reasons can overlap, and often they do.

Especially with the last category, which is often the most dangerous . . . and, of course, the most prevalent, because - in response to Angel's question of how do you find good torturers these days anyway - the best torturers tend to be people that love it and have trained at it for years. By themselves, just because they really enjoyed the sport.

Eris was most definitely a student of the last category - if "student" was the right word; more likely she'd invented most of this, not just the techniques, but the feelings as well - but she was obviously also in it for a reason, and that made things different. She had a boss, and her boss wanted Angel to talk. Which made the method different.

Angel could see her, on occasion, holding back. If this had been her own work, she would have driven him for miles more, just to see how he handled the road. But there were times when she drew back . . . and he could see it paining her.

But she played it well. Soon, he began to appreciate the physical pain . . . to love it a little, because it was a contrast to the horrible images she was stirring up in his mind; it was an anchor, and a source of comfort. Comfort because it was a link to the real world right now, where his hands weren't crafting perfect murders or coming inches too late to save anyone over and over and over again.

And when she finally got around to the prosaic part of her job, he was ripe.

"Tell me about the girl."

Eris's dark honey voice broke in through the chaotic bruise of his mind between images, like a television tuned to static snow. She took her hands off him and let the pain ebb, let the harsh, frenetic noise in his head die down a little.

"Angel," she murmured, and now he realized that she was very close to him; he could feel her breath, smell her violent, sexual scent. "Tell me about the girl."

He felt concussed and weak, and it was difficult to focus. But he wanted . . . he did want to focus on her voice, because it was so, so welcome after the pain and after-after everything he'd done . . .

"What girl?"

Eris laid her hands on his heart and suddenly, like a blow to the temple, he saw Gunn pulling back the hospital curtains, Cordelia's body after the coma had finally . . . he cried out and she stopped, took her hands from him and spoke again.

"The Slayer. The one whose name is tattooed on your arm."

"Oh," he said vaguely. "That . . . that narrows it down a bit."

"Tell me about her."

His head lolled forward. He felt weak. He didn't think he'd actually lost that much blood, to feel as weak as this. He wondered why she'd need him to talk if she could pick all these things out of his head . . . and then it struck him that she wasn't a psychic, that she just urged the pictures forward. He'd been picking them.

He moaned.

"Angel," she reprimanded. Her voice was steel hard and as dark as her eyes.

"What about her?" he whispered.

Her knuckles stroked his cheekbones, but no pictures came. He remembered too, earlier, that she'd removed his bandages without drawing forth any images. She could touch him without hurting him. He closed his eyes and leaned into the touch pitifully; it felt nice to be touched without having blood spilt, without having bones broken. Without having his mind bruised.

"Where is she?" Eris asked. "She's left you an awfully long time. I wouldn't leave my property for such a very long time. Perhaps she doesn't care for you."

Angel shook his head. "No, that's not-she had an errand . . . she said it might . . . it might take a long time . . ." He opened his eyes and met her black gaze. "She loves me."

"And you love her?" Eris asked. "Enough to let me hurt you like this for the rest of your life?"

"I love her-"

Before he could think of what else to say, of how to protect Buffy, whatever Eris did to make her touch injure him sparked, and he couldn't see her calm face and dark eyes anymore. All he could see was himself, cradling Connor's body, raising the knife-

"Stop it," he whispered, closing his eyes, trying to force the image out.

His mind went black just as his son went limp in his arms. He couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't move.

"What errand?" Eris asked. Her voice was very even. She was still touching him, but he didn't see anything, couldn't feel anything but echoes of pain.

"I don't-please . . ."

Eris's lips brushed Angel's skin. "We don't want to hurt her, Angel. And she's a god-what could we do to her?"

And he started to cry. "You're doing things to me I never even . . . things I never even imagined. I can't-"

Eris sighed and stood. "All right, child. You'll talk when you're ready."

She left him for the eager bloodletter, left the room. Camalotz had been biding his time patiently these last few hours, but he didn't waste much time getting started; Eris shut the door on a scream.

"What did he say?"

Eris turned to the voice of her boss.

"He can't. He loves her."

The god's lip turned in a snarl. "That's precious. But useless."

"He says she's on an errand."

"What manner of errand?"

"I don't know. He said he expected it to take a while."

"Vague. And?"

"That's as much as I could get out of him. Perhaps he'll be more talkative after having a few capillaries opened one by one. I think my method was exhausting him."

"Isn't that a plus?"

"Not if he's too fatigued to form words."

The god frowned. "You like him. I shouldn't have picked you for this."

Eris's eyes flashed like an eagle's talons descending on a rabbit's last moments. The leader had a powerful urge to cover his throat.

"My prejudice does not make me weak."

Another scream tore through the door. Eris didn't flinch; not an eyelash flickered on her perfect bronze facade.

"You're scary as hell, has anyone ever told you that?"

She didn't answer.

"Just make sure he breaks. We need the girl, okay?"

Eris's sweetly dark voice was, as always, flawlessly even. "He is on his way."

Buffy found 509 Petrucci Street without much problem. In a rage, she was an even more focused hunter than usual.

She kicked down the doors that met her. The violence, even against innocent inanimate objects, felt good, clean, healthy. Cathartic. She found no guards and she didn't know whether to be thankful or concerned.

She searched the first floor and found nothing. She started downstairs to the basement. The moment she stepped off the last stair, she knew she'd made the right choice; she heard a scream reverberate against the cement cellar walls. She swallowed her fear and went toward the pure heart of the sound, trying to concentrate on firing up her anger again. Don't be afraid for Angel; be angry at what's being done to him. Fear makes you weak; anger makes you a weapon.

As the screams got louder, the mantra was harder to repeat. Angel was screaming so often and with so much pain . . . what were they doing to him? How long had they been doing it? A huge part of her threatened to crumble with worry, break apart under concern for her lover. Please, please let him be okay.

When she finally got to the source of the noise, though, it was easy to find her rage again. There was an old cellar door behind which, she was sure, she would find Angel and whoever was doing this to him. Before it were - finally - some black hats. There was a woman, dark and beautiful and definitely not human. Buffy looked at her and saw a woman in black, on her hands and knees sobbing over a fresh grave, sobbing to madness, saw talons scoop rabbits out of fields. The woman regarded Buffy with the cool, unshakable vigilance of the better predator, but did not move.

It was the other figure that made Buffy's blood boil. He was a little man with a ruddy complexion and an ill-fitting coat.

"Dione," Buffy said, coming forward. "Trying to get my attention?"

He looked very surprised to see her.

"This is a little extreme, don't you think?" she asked, taking more steps in his direction, boxing him into the door. "You could have just whistled."

"Go ahead and call him off," Dione said softly to the dark woman. She disappeared silently into the room behind them, and seconds later the screaming stopped.

"I think it goes without saying that you're a dead man," Buffy continued.

"I'm a god, sweetheart," Dione said. "You can't kill me."

"Gods aren't invulnerable. You told me yourself: gods can be killed; it just takes a lot. And I intend to do a lot."

Dione raised his hands in self-defense. "Hear me out."

"Hear you out? I-"

"You'd kill me without even knowing why I took Angel? Doesn't that seem a little rash?"

Buffy lowered her hackles a bit. "All right. You have two very short minutes."

He dipped his head deferentially. "How kind of you."

She raised her brow. "You wanna be a smart ass right now? Did I mention how much I'm going to kill you a minute and a half from now?"

He rolled his eyes. "All right, Miss Patience. Here's the deal. How would you like to be insanely powerful?"

"I think I've heard this speech. Isn't this the get into my panties/make me a god speech?"

"No. That was just the tip of the iceberg. This is the real deal."

"Not interested. Now, hand over my boyfriend completely intact in the next twenty seconds, and I'll let you keep all your limbs."

"You're missing a real opportunity here. An opportunity for real power, the kind of power you've never even dreamt of."

"And you're about to miss an opportunity to live into old age. Angel now, or I'm going to make you dead."

Dione sighed dramatically. "You're sure I can't-"

"Do you have a learning disability?"

"Very well. Right this way."

He turned and pushed the worn wooden door until it gave way, revealing a darkened room lit only by the oily yellow glow of a kerosene lamp. Buffy could smell blood, and her immediate thought was that she didn't want her eyes to adjust. When they did, she flinched and turned away before she could help herself. Angel was tied to a chair in the middle of the room, held up only by restraints, beaten and bleeding, his skin a palette of blood red and bruise purple. At his feet lay innumerable horrible tools, shining except for where they were darkened with his blood. The beautiful, dangerous goddess was crouched by his side; a spike of fear immediately went through Buffy until she realized that the woman was comforting him, not hurting him. Angel was leaning into her bronze hands, not flinching from them.

Buffy knew she should be grateful, but she could taste the hot, sickly vitriol of jealousy rising up in her throat, coating her tongue.

In the dark, several feet away from Angel, was a little Hispanic man with small, capable hands and arms dark with tattoos. Buffy caught a glimpse of him in the light of the lamp and saw the great wings of a massive bird, a horrible curved beak taking the heads off of thousands of men, their blood painting the brown earth red.

She flinched and looked at Dione.

"Untie him or I'm going to show you something much more horrible than either of your lackeys."

She almost carried him into the apartment, to their bed. His legs were moving, his feet treading the ground, but he was letting her hold so much of his weight that it almost didn't matter.

She laid him on the bed the way one would an infant, with the knowledge, the panic that comes with handling something precious, breakable. Angel didn't look at her; his eyes focused vaguely on the ceiling, on visions playing out inside his head.

She'd been afraid to heal him at Petrucci Street, or in the car . . . anywhere before she was sure they were safe. She didn't know how much it would take out of her, to undo this much damage, and as much bravado as she blew, she knew that three gods would be a hell of a fight, and she'd need to be at full strength to not get killed, let alone expect to best any one of them. She couldn't risk it, as much as it hurt her.

Buffy parted Angel's shirt to see the damage done to his chest. The room was dark, and she was glad; she could see enough. Her eyes caught on something, and she frowned as she brought her fingers to a familiar wound above his heart. A perfectly formed cross burned into the flesh.

A thrill of fear shot through Buffy, even as she felt Angel's pulse throb beneath her fingers, beneath the crucifix wound. What had they done to him?

It didn't matter. It didn't matter, because she was going to fix it. Buffy laid her hands on Angel's chest, closed her eyes, and concentrated all her energy on making Angel well. She imagined him unmarred and free of pain: no bruises, no broken bones, no freaky cross wound. All better. Everything's all right.

She knew it worked - or at least something had happened - because she felt herself get weak, slightly lightheaded. She opened her eyes cautiously and peaked nervously at Angel. He was still staring blankly at the ceiling, but his chest and face were faded back to pale, the cuts, bruises, and burns evanesced. Buffy carefully picked up his right hand. His hand before had been a wounded curl of bruised flesh, but now the broken fingers had healed, and you'd never even know they'd been injured.

"Angel," she whispered, and cupped his placid, undamaged face in her hand.

His eyes fell on her vacantly, but he didn't speak. Eventually, he went back to looking at the ceiling, the blank canvas on which to project the horrorshows his mind was producing.

Buffy sighed, and drew away from him. She slipped off the bed and undressed him carefully, stripped the blood-stiffened clothes from his woundless, scarless body. Angel was pliable and motionless as she did this, as she removed her own clothing and maneuvered them both under the covers. She pulled him close, held him close to her, and after a moment he relaxed against her, and his eyes fell from the ceiling, fell closed.

Angel woke her before dawn. He was battling sleep demons, twitching and moaning and fighting nightmares like she hadn't seen him since he'd returned from hell. She stroked his back and spoke softly to him, choking back the fear her heart was beating powerfully through her body, beating fast as a bird's. Finally he stilled beneath her hand, and she had already settled back into her pillows to chase sleep again when she realized that his change had come with waking.

"Angel?"

His eyes were open, dark and haunted. They flickered toward her only minutely, like there was something much more important in the room that he needed to pay attention to.

"Angel, sweetheart . . ."

She turned over, turned toward him again, and touched his face gently. He flinched slightly, druggedly, and turned onto his back. Further from her, yes, but also to a less guarded position.

"Angel . . ."

He looked over at her, and this time he was able to sustain the gaze.

"Are you okay?"

As soon as the words hit the air, she knew it was a stupid question. Of course he wasn't okay. As much as she'd wanted to, as much as she'd imagined everything healed, she could only fix little things. Some wounds went too deep.

Angel didn't say anything, though, about it being a stupid question or anything else. He just looked at her, silent.

"Baby, say something," she begged, leaning over him, touching him again. Her hand on his shoulder, one on the joint of his jaw. He didn't flinch this time, and a huge knot of anxiety released in her.

But he didn't. He just looked at her.

"Please. Please, Angel, say something," she tried again, her voice going a little raw, and she could see something in his eyes register the depth of her concern.

"I-" he started, and then he stopped, dropped his eyes. He looked exhausted, suddenly.

"Angel, please."

He actively leaned back into his pillows, pressing himself into the down. He closed his eyes for a moment, like the effort of moving was painful or taxing, even though it couldn't be, she'd fixed him . . .

He opened his eyes, focused on her.

"So how was your day?" he asked, and laughed.

Buffy regarded him nervously. He wasn't acting . . . normal . . . but he was talking. That was a step in the right direction, right?

"I-it was okay, up until the part where I had to go rescue my boyfriend from Guantanamo Bay."

Angel picked up his right hand. He studied it for a moment, noted the lack of off angles and puffiness, dark colors. Then he flexed his fingers experimentally.

"Speaking of," he said slowly. "Something you'd like to get off your lovely chest?"

Buffy blushed and covered herself awkwardly with the sheets. "Well, I may have done a tiny bit of willing while you were in your less-than-attentive post-torture state."

He raised his brow. "A tiny bit?"

"Okay. A lot bit."

Angel began to speak, but Buffy preempted him.

"But you were really hurt, and I was really scared, Angel! So I . . . I healed you, even though it scares you when I use my god powers. So you can't be mad at me, because I did it because I love you and I just wanted you to be better and because I was afraid, so just . . . shut up."

A little smile fought its way onto Angel's face. "Okay. Message received."

She looked him over speculatively. "Do you feel better everywhere? How does your leg feel? I didn't really think about it piece-by-piece; I was kind of going for a whole shebang kind of deal."

"How Gestalt of you," Angel murmured.

"Huh?" Buffy asked.

"Nothing," Angel said, his eyes falling to what used to be his bad leg. "I think it's okay . . ." He flexed his knee. "It feels okay."

Buffy grinned and, in her excitement at a divine job well done, bounced into Angel's lap animatedly enough that she lost her sheet. Angel smiled briefly as he watched the linen slither away from her lovely curves, but didn't say anything to wise her up.

"See? And the reason you didn't want me doing this earlier?"

Angel didn't answer. Buffy searched his face, the smile fading from hers.

"You okay, mister?" She caught herself. "I mean, I know you're not okay-"

"It was a really long night," he said softly. He traced the curve of Buffy's jaw with his thumb, watched the movement with the myopic concentration of a child . . . of someone who's trying not to think about something else.

"I-" Buffy started, but Angel cut her off.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said softly. "Tell me what the oracle said."

She frowned at his unwillingness to be Joe Therapy even though they'd been doing so much better with the self-disclosure love.

"Oh. Well, I kind of left before we were all done-"

His eyes found their way up to hers. "What? You left before you were finished? Why?"

"Because we'd gotten to the part about ‘by the way, right now someone has your boyfriend and is doing not nice things to him; you might want to see to that.' I kind of though that was a priority."

Angel frowned.

"-but before that, she agreed with you. ‘Yes, there's very dark juju afoot re: my becoming a god;' however, there's not much we can do until we find out more, so I vote we stay in bed and rest and I'll make love to you, if you're up to it. You know, for morale?"

Angel wrinkled his brow. "The oracle wanted to make love to you?"

Buffy cupped Angel's jaw in her hands and kissed him briefly on the mouth, the jaw, the throat.

"You are so pretty," she murmured. "But not too bright."

Angel clued in to what she was talking about after a moment, druggedly, and tried to respond, but she shushed him quietly, kissed his protesting mouth.

"It's okay," she whispered.

She was already in his lap. She untangled the covers from them both and pushed them aside awkwardly; Angel just sat there and watched her, watched her twist beautifully in the dim pre-dawn gloom that filtered through the filmy curtains: street lights, passing cars, the orange-gray of the not-yet-risen sun. She had stripped them both before putting them to bed the night before so there wasn't anything to take off. Angel was numb and he felt almost as though he had to think before he moved, so he just sat and watched Buffy as she moved, because she was so, so beautiful in this surreal pre-morning dim. After she pushed the covers aside, she brought her beautiful body close to his, held him close, and soon he felt swept away, drowned in her kisses, drowned in the huge essence of her. He closed his eyes and just felt the sensation of her mouth on his, her soft, perfect body moving against his, her warmth, the beat of her heart. He let her push him down into the pillows as far as he would go, and then when they were met with resistance, she used the headboard for support and mounted him. He watched, almost as a spectator, in drugged awe as Buffy rose up over him, a golden, gorgeous arc, her fragrant fair hair falling over him. Stars. He closed his eyes for a moment, concentrated on the sensation of Buffy embracing him, of her small hands holding onto his shoulders, cradling his face, her breasts pressed against him. He could still feel her heartbeat, and if he concentrated, he could count the tempo. He opened his eyes and saw hers shining in the dark room.

Stars.

6. Kingcraft

The next morning, Buffy woke to an empty bed. This was the first time Angel had woken before her; she remembered him doing it the precious few times they'd slept beside one another in her youth, waking before her and watching her sleep, but since being imbued with god powers, she'd hardly felt the need for rest.

Buffy craned her ears. She couldn't hear him moving around the apartment, so either he had left or he was somewhere being very still, which was, she had to admit, incredibly like him.

Not that this fact helped slow her pulse any.

Buffy got up, wrapped her robe around herself, and began the search for her wayward lover.

"Angel?" she called hesitantly.

Her voice echoed hugely throughout the apartment, as though it contained no furniture, no life. Nausea roiled through her.

And then she could breathe again. Angel was sitting on the living room couch, being very still. The lights were off and he was curled up into a smaller space than she'd ever seen his large body occupy, his limbs falling against his body as though he were injured.

But he was there, and he was okay, so everything was all right.

Buffy forced a small smile. "Couldn't you sleep?"

She put her hand on him, to reaffirm his existence, to comfort him, but he shied from her. She was stung, and confused, but she withdrew her touch.

"I can't-" he said, and then stopped.

He wasn't looking at her. She wanted to touch his face, to bring his eyes back to her, but she'd touched him and he'd pulled away. She didn't understand.

Or, rather, she was afraid she did, and that scared her. She didn't want him to be that hurt; she'd rather he was mad at her. That she'd done something; that she could fix.

"Angel?" she asked softly. Maybe she was allowed to talk.

"It never goes away," he said, and even though she'd asked for his words, the way he spoke, they sounded abrupt, like she'd been waiting a long time for them. He turned his eyes to her, and they were so spooked that she almost wished he hadn't, even though that meant he was better, didn't it, that he could look at her?

"What?" she asked apprehensively.

"It's like . . . it's like they're right," he said, ignoring her, "and there's no evolution. People just keep on working 'round their same grooves, and nothing . . . nothing ever changes . . ."

Buffy started to get very, very concerned about where this was going.

"Baby-"

He laughed, a thoroughly uncheerful sound. "That's right. Baby. Darling boy. Nothing changes."

Buffy frowned; she didn't understand what was going on.

"I'm an albatross. No matter how much good I do, the death and destruction I cause ends up outweighing it by pounds."

"Angel-"

"Gunn. Gunn. I saved his life, maybe, when I first met him . . . but maybe if he hadn't met me, he would have died a clean death without nearly selling his soul. Or who knows, maybe he would have made it. Maybe he'd be alive and well, married, kids somewhere right now-"

"I don't-"

"The closer people are to me, the harder I try to save them, the worse I blacken their lives. Cordy, God, I loved her so much, and you-you couldn't even tell it was her at the end, she didn't even look like a person anymore-"

Somewhere, Buffy's recognition of ‘all Angel's friends are dead' had included the fact, ‘Cordelia Chase is dead,' but she had never actively thought about it until this moment. A dull pain hit her in the stomach, the same ache for reading a news article about someone in your high school class dying in a car accident, or reading that the victim of a shooting is your age or from your hometown.

She wished, guiltily, that this pain wasn't far outshouted by the jealousy she felt when Angel said, ‘I loved her so much,' but it was.

"-it's never, ever going to stop. All I do is create death and destruction; it's all I'm good at." Angel turned his haunted eyes on Buffy. "You need to get away from me, or I'll ruin you, too. Leave me."

Buffy was so shocked it took her a long moment to reply. "What? No. Angel, no. You're just upset because-"

"Because I realized the truth! Because I realized that it doesn't matter if I'm human now; I'm still a monster! I-"

"Angel-"

"I got them killed! They're all dead because of me!"

"To save the world," Buffy reasoned, trying to soothe him but her voice really bordering on pleading. Angel was wild-eyed and shaking; she was afraid he was going to break, and she wasn't sure she knew how to fix him if he did. "They knew what they were getting into-"

"How could they? How could anyone ever? They trusted me to keep them safe, to do what was right, and now they're-"

"Angel."

She grabbed hold of him, pushing aside the thought of him flinching from her. He needed to be grounded or something bad was going to happen, something worse.

This time he didn't balk; he folded on her like a sail collapsing, all the wind going out of him. Angel folded on her, deflating, and she heard a whine break free from his chest and was confused about what it was for a long moment until she felt the warmth of tears on her skin.

"I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry . . ."

Buffy held him as close as she felt she could without hurting him. She wanted to say, ‘It's okay,' but it wasn't, it might never be again, so she just held him until he exhausted himself.

It was like living with a ghost now. Buffy knew, from her study of the map of Angel's body and from her general knowledge of vampire culture, that he'd been tortured before, so she had figured that he would probably just need a few days to get over it, and then he would be as good as new. But they had done something to him, put something in his head, and it had thrown him majorly off track, to a whole new dimension.

He was quieter than normal, which was, for him, really kind of incredible, and he still wasn't sleeping well: he was having nightmares and waking often. He became photosensitive, and hovered in the periphery to accommodate this new quirk, although he still liked to look out the windows, and would spend inordinate amounts of time floating before them, gazing longingly out.

It probably would have been a good idea to take him out into the world, but Buffy didn't feel safe doing that, and he never asked, so the two of them danced here in limbo.

Like an oft-beaten puppy, he alternated between not tolerating touch and starving for it, either flinching from Buffy's hand or perched beside her waiting for attention, too uneasy to initiate.

His appetite was the worst thing: he rarely felt hungry, and often felt nauseous when he did try to eat. Food had brought him so much pleasure before that it made Buffy sad to see him so disinterested, even turned off; she tried to fix him things at home, had things delivered in to tempt him, and he tried for her sake, but she could see that he was not far from becoming physically ill trying to placate her, so eventually she just left him alone.

Beyond that, there was the more pressing matter of Sila. Buffy needed to go back to the oracle, but she didn't want to leave Angel alone - like, ever again - in case he got grabbed by more of her enemies. Angel, however, thought the visiting the oracle thing was of prime importance, and wanted to go with her.

"It can wait," she said breezily when he finally pressed her about it.

"Until what happens?"

"Until . . . later," she said decisively, and craftily left the room. Angel sighed.

"So I guess your friend was right," Angel said. "The one from the bookstore."

It was early evening, three nights after Buffy had sprung him from the hole on Petrucci Street, and he was feeling well enough tonight to let himself be held. He and Buffy were lying on the comforter of their bed, watching the sky get dark through the large window.

"She's not my friend," Buffy said uncomfortably. "I don't even know her. I don't even know her name. She just-"

"Saved my life? Maybe?"

"Yeah. Well. But the tattoo didn't keep you from getting Elizabeth Bathory'd for the better part of a day," Buffy said ruefully. "I thought it was going to protect you-"

"It did," Angel insisted gently. "It kept me alive."

Buffy just frowned. He was right, but she still felt cranky about it. Didn't these fleshmagic talismans come with warranties?

"Any idea why they wanted you?" Angel asked. "From what I could glean from my not-terribly-chatty torturers, they just wanted you. And since you had a brief face-to-face-"

Buffy's frown deepened. "Yeah. Dione gave this whole feel-me-up speech about power again; give me a break-"

"Dione?"

Buffy sighed. "Didn't I tell you? I know the boss of the torturers. He's the guy that made me a god."

Angel's face was priceless. And not happy.

"Don't you think that might be information I would be interested in?" he asked tightly. "Information I've probably earned, what with the my being tortured for you thing-"

Buffy flinched. "I know! I'm sorry. I just . . . I forgot to tell you, okay? I'm sorry."

Angel brooded. "This is really not good, Buffy. I don't like this. I mean, I didn't like the god thing before, but now I-"

"I know. I know how it looks."

They lay in silence for a while before Angel asked, "So, are you going to tell me what he said to you, or not?"

Buffy fumbled with her words.

"Oh. Um, I actually didn't let him finish. I know," she preempted him, "I should probably have let him get his Bond villain on, but I was standing outside the door to where they were keeping you, and I was terrified, and it was all I could do to not rip into him and get myself killed, so . . . really, you should be proud of me."

Angel didn't look like he viewed the situation the same way, so Buffy quickly continued.

"Anyway, all he said was that he was offering me an opportunity for the kind of power I had never even dreamed of. And I told him to get bent."

Angel frowned. "Eris said something about that, too. Something about coming into power, coming to the winning side-"

"Who's Eris?"

"The woman - the god - who was torturing me."

Buffy tried to stuff the teenage brat back down, but found she couldn't.

"Oh. The one who had her hands all over you?"

Angel blinked. "You have to be kidding me. You're jealous of my torturer?"

Buffy pouted. "She was all over you when I walked in!"

"You know, you're right. She did touch me quite a bit. She had to really get her hands on me to break my fingers and smash open my face and cut open my chest-"

"But you didn't have to like it!" Angel goggled and Buffy blushed and tracked back over her words. "I mean . . . I know you didn't like that part. But . . . when I walked in, that part, you didn't-I mean, she was being . . . you were . . ."

Angel sighed. "She wasn't hurting me. You couldn't possibly, but . . . do you know how comforting even neutral touches are after . . . after hours of taking that? It just, I-"

"Why? I mean, I understand why you were . . . but why was she-"

"She likes me. Well, that's-that's not the word. She respects me, and she didn't want to have to do that. The . . . the torturing part, so-"

Buffy pouted. "I thought you said you guys didn't talk."

Angel sighed. "I cannot believe you are jealous; this is pathological."

"Hey, you were the one cuddling with the lady who spent hours making you a Goya. Let's not throw stones."

Angel leveled a long, mute look at her and she deflated.

"Fine," Buffy ceded. "We're both being childish. Mostly you."

Angel rolled his eyes. "That's very big of you."

"I'm a real saint."

"I though you were a-"

She pressed two fingers to his lips, silencing him. "Don't."

Angel gently took her wrist and drew her hand away from his mouth, pressed a soft kiss to her palm. Then he let their joined hands fall below his waist as he kissed her mouth.

"So what are you thinking now?" he asked.

"Hmm? Me?" Buffy asked dreamily. "Kind of thinking about taking you to bed . . . I mean, we're in bed, but you know what I mean-"

"Oh, no," he chastised. "I think we need to go to work."

"No!" she whined, lolling her head back. "Why do we always have to be the good guys?"

"It's a curse," Angel agreed without conviction. "Now. The oracle?"

"Fine," Buffy agreed grumpily, untangling herself from her lover and sitting up so she could think clearly. "You win. We'll go see the stupid oracle. But when we get back, you're putting out."

"I promise."

Sila did not look surprised to see them. Buffy wondered if she looked surprised ever.

"I see you got your friend out without much trouble," the oracle said passively. "Hello, Angel."

"Uh, hi."

"Have a seat, both of you."

Buffy sat with her arms crossed over her chest; Angel looked slightly uncomfortable. The last time he'd been in an oracle's chambers, it had been a crime scene.

"Angel," Buffy said, elbowing him. "Offering."

He stopped nervously looking around Sila's enclave and fumbled for the gift. He set it, round and shining, on a low-lying table separating the prophet's settee from his and Buffy's.

It was an alarm clock from a five and dime. Buffy thought it was cheap.

Sila smiled broadly, taking the clock, hamster-sized and with a small pet's frenetic heartbeat, into her hands.

"Time," she said delightedly, staring into the animated face.

Buffy straightened, watching the oracle's reaction to Angel's gift.

"The apple was your idea, too, yes?" Sila asked Angel, glancing at him over the clock. He didn't say anything, but she smiled. "I like your sense of humor. She doesn't understand it, but she appreciates many of your other qualities."

Buffy sank back in her seat, the vice of her arms tightening around herself.

Sila set the clock back down on the table. The bright, ticking face sat pointed at Buffy.

Time, she thought. She hadn't gotten that; Sila was right.

"You have more questions," Sila said, then waited.

"Yeah," Buffy said stiltedly. "We have some questions about the gods. The black hats."

Sila didn't say anything, and Buffy filled Angel in: "She only answers ‘yes or no' questions."

"Fun."

"Okay," Buffy said, taking a stab at beginning. "Um . . . that guy, Dione, he's a bad guy, right?"

"‘Bad' is a relative term," Sila answered gently.

"Oh, right. Um . . . he's . . . working against us?"

"Yes."

"Good. Well, I mean, bad, but good to know. Um . . ."

"We're correct in assuming," Angel intervened quietly. "That he isn't alone? That he's part of a united effort?"

"Yes."

Buffy looked at him. "Oh, right. Your so-not-your-girlfriend torturer said something about a ‘side' . . ." She looked to Sila. "What's that about, anyway? They're recruiting?"

The oracle hesitated, but eventually answered in the affirmative.

Buffy frowned. "Recruiting for what? It must be pretty serious if they're willing to torture and kill for it, so I'm guessing it's not inter-league beer pong. Which is a shame, 'cuz I'm not half bad at that-"

Angel sighed. "Buffy, could you focus-" He stopped. "What's beer pong?"

"I'll explain it to you later. Right now we're focusing, remember?"

"Sorry."

Sila smiled indulgently. "There was recently a schism in the community, and one sect has started actively recruiting members to strengthen it in the event of further division or war."

Buffy frowned. "What happened? Why was there a-Angel, please say that word for me so I don't make it into a bad word."

"Schism," Angel repeated. "It means a split or divide."

"Right. That. I was afraid I was going to say-"

"I know what you were going to say."

"Wolfram and Hart has long represented a mainstay in not just this dimension, but in several others," Sila elucidated around their repartee. "Outright war against it - not just that, but losing an entire branch - has created an uproar."

Buffy looked at Angel. He was very still, his eyes downcast.

"I haven't seen that much uproar," she said carefully, and then amended, thinking of the uproar she'd seen in her apartment, "I mean, on the streets or anything."

"No, but certain parties - old parties, powerful parties - are very invested in old, powerful enterprises, and to have one threatened like that . . . ?"

"Not good, huh?" Buffy asked.

"No," Sila answered. "Not good."

"So that's why they made you a god," Angel said quietly. He was still looking down, away, through the earth. "They needed to boost their numbers."

Buffy was stung - he didn't think she was god material? - but he looked so fragile that she didn't want to challenge him.

"At least we know now," she soothed. "Maybe we can use it against them."

Angel did not look comforted. He was quiet for a long moment, and then he asked the oracle, "They've been doing a lot of recruiting, you said. Their numbers now . . ."

"You must tread carefully," Sila said judiciously after a long moment. "They have amassed an army."

Buffy huffed and collapsed into the sofa. "So they have an army. Where are we going to get an army? An army of gods, no less?"

Angel sat down slowly beside her, a look of careful concentration on his face.

"Buffy . . . I have a really stupid idea."

She perked. "Well, I have no ideas, so you're one up on me. Whatcha got?"

"Have you . . . have you ever heard of the Deeper Well?"

She scrunched up her forehead. "Nuh-uh. What is it?"

"It's . . . it's a burial ground . . . and a prison . . . for the old gods . . . the demon gods that came before man, even before the demons as you know them."

Buffy stared. "Angel, this sounds-"

"Like a really bad idea," he finished for her. "I know."

"But we're desperate," she said dolefully. "Tell me more."

"I thought all your friends were killed in the fight," Buffy said, struggling to keep up with Angel. He was usually careful to wait for her, but now he was all distracted. . . . It sucked being little! Stupid Angel with his stupid long legs! At least he wasn't limping anymore . . .

"Illyria's not really a friend," Angel muttered.

Buffy's brow rose. "Then we're going to her for help with our very sensitive mission because . . . ?"

Angel sighed. "She's not really an enemy, either. She can be trusted, I guess. And believe me when I say that this is her area of expertise."

"I don't want to believe you. Explain."

Angel frowned. "Just believe me."

Buffy pouted, but Angel ignored her, so she remained cranky and ignorant.

Buffy was used to demons. Nine years a Slayer, and she'd had her fair share; hell, she'd even been friends with some. She'd even slept with a few.

Illyria was a new experience, and Buffy didn't like her.

It.

Whatever.

There was nothing in Illyria that sent off the Slayer senses. If she hadn't been expecting it, she never would have known that they were coming upon somebody-an insanely old, powerful demon, no less.

And that made her furious.

Plus . . . she - it, whatever! - was just creepy to look at, disconcerting to talk to, and uncomfortable to be around. Its skin was egg white where it wasn't blue, which - just weird; Buffy couldn't not think of the Judge, and all the memories that went along with that - and its eyes . . . oh, God, its eyes were the sickly, flat blue of veins beneath the skin. And they were always on you, like it never blinked. And it moved . . . it didn't move right; it moved like an insect, or-no, that wasn't right. Like a bird, a huge predatory bird that was waiting for you to turn away so it could get at your throat, or for something horrible to happen to you so it could eat your remains off the highway.

It was just creepy, and Buffy didn't like it. At all.

But it was a demon god escaped from the Deeper Well - Angel had finally explained, the ass - and that was really pretty helpful at the moment, so Buffy was going to have to sit on her personal angst.

Illyria had an apartment in - not surprisingly, because where else would Buffy be spending her day? - not the best part of town, and almost immediately after Angel's fist left the door, it opened and revealed the pale, unpitying countenance of Buffy's new BFF.

Illyria stared out at them for a long moment before speaking.

"You've become human," it said finally.

"Yeah," Angel said, smiling awkwardly.

"Disappointing."

It let them into the apartment, which was dark except for the dull glow and occasional aggressive flicker of vibrant light from the television, which was also spewing forth a raucous jingle. Buffy blinked and studied the screen.

"Are you playing Nintendo?" she demanded, tripping over a controller.

"Ganon will taste my wrath," Illyria said seriously.

Buffy exchanged looks with Angel, who shrugged.

"At least she's not wreaking havoc on the streets," he murmured in a tone that suggested he wasn't sure that she wasn't.

"So, Illyria," he said brightly. "You've been keeping out of trouble, right? Laying low? I mean, we haven't heard about any big, blue disturbances lately-"

"There has been regrettably little bloodshed of late," it replied, looking as though it did truly regret this. "I have needed the time to recuperate."

"Yeah," Angel said softly. "But you're looking . . . okay . . ."

"I have recovered fully, and am ready for battle."

Angel nodded. "Good. We have a proposition for you."

Illyria smiled, which was, Buffy thought, much more disturbing than her lack of human expressions. "I was hoping you might. Whatever it is, I am with you."

Buffy had gotten pretty good at traveling with stuff - addresses, suitcases, whatever - so she thought she could probably take Angel and Illyria with her without damaging them, or losing them - or parts of them, ew - to space or time.

Angel was less sure.

"I do not want to," he said bluntly. "No."

Buffy frowned. "You're being kind of a baby. It's just a little bit of magic-"

"It doesn't have . . . seatbelts, and it doesn't seem safe, and . . . and there are all sorts of other ways we could get there in just a little more time. No."

Buffy wondered, briefly, if he was being so unmanly because he objected to the destination, but this thought only stayed in her head for a fleeting moment.

"It's totally safe. And the sooner we get there, the better, right? Get a head start on the evil-thwarting? And I don't want to just go on ahead-" Because I'm afraid you'll get kidnapped by a bunch of gods and tortured for hours and hours again "-because I never know everything I should say, all the smart things, so I need you to back me up."

Angel's face softened, and he closed the distance between them, and took her into his arms.

"You are smart," he insisted, pressing a tender kiss to her cheek.

Buffy basked in the attention. "I didn't say I wasn't. I just said it would be really nice if maybe my really smart, demon-hunter boyfriend would come with me for the really complicated demon-god-loosing thing instead of taking a really slow boat-and don't give me that look, because I know it would be a boat, Mr. Afraid-of-Planes-Because-They're-High-In-the-Air, even though he'll jump from one skyscraper to another, what's the math on that?"

Angel nuzzled into the dip of her collarbone, but said nothing.

Buffy slid her hands around his waist, pulled him close. Angel murmured softly.

"When do we leave?" he asked, his lips tickling her throat.

She grinned.

Buffy decided to call first this time.

"Hi, Giles! So, we have this little errand we need to run out your way, and we don't know how long it'll take, so we were thinking maybe we'd crash at your place tonight and get an early jump on it tomorrow?"

"Um, all right," the Watcher fumbled. "I assume ‘we' is you and Angel?"

"Um . . . well, it's me, Angel, and Illyria, godking of the primordium. That okay?"

There was a brief pause. "Er-fine. I'll make up the den. Will the godking take the sleeper sofa? I've only the one guest room, and the sofa won't sleep two-"

"That'll be great. I'm not sure she sleeps, anyway. I think she . . . waits . . . or something, instead. She's really weird; you'll get a total kick out of her. In a Watcher-y way, not in a hey, let's watch soccer together way."

"I can't wait."

Giles was spending a quiet evening at home with his books when Buffy disrupted his life and heart rhythm again. She, Angel, and Illyria appeared not five feet from him, causing him to startle so severely that his book flew from his hands and made, actually, quite good air.

"You should call before you do that," the Watcher said finally, composing himself with some great difficulty.

"Huh?" Buffy asked. She was slightly less chipper than during her previous visit; bringing Angel and Illyria with her had taken a little out of her. "I did!"

"Well, I-immediately before. Seconds before."

Angel was looking rattled and slightly nauseous, but he had enough presence of mind to ask gently of Buffy, "Are you okay? You look a little spent."

Buffy's inner freshman girl was stung by her boyfriend's negative assessment of her appearance, but she tried to get adult Buffy to the forefront to realize that he was concerned for her.

"I'm fine," Adult Buffy reassured him. "Are you okay? You look a little green around the gills."

Illyria, cocking its head, got uncomfortably close to Angel's neck in the search for gills.

"It's just an expression," he muttered to it. To Buffy, he said, "I think I'll make it."

Giles stood and approached them. "Angel."

Okay, now Buffy was sure she wasn't imagining things. Angel was generally hard to read, but right now he was not; when Giles came into his personal space, when the Watcher said his name, his whole body tensed. His jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed. His hands clenched to fists. Buffy almost wanted to get between them, to collar Angel like an unruly Rottweiler. She was almost afraid.

"Giles," Angel said, his voice cold but civil. Not the growl, the savage unbound barking that Buffy had expected: Get off my yard. But forced. He was being a good boy for her. He was heeling.

"And this is Illyria," Buffy said hurriedly.

Illyria didn't rush up to present itself, but continued poking about Giles's study as though it was the only person in the room. Buffy's heart sank, but Giles acted as though everything had gone according to Buffy's plans.

"The godking, I presume?"

"Tremble before me," Illyria suggested dispassionately, studying half an old crumpet with some interest.

"You're running with some strange company these days," Giles said cheerfully.

He was speaking to Buffy, but Angel answered, tugging at his lead, his voice dark and quiet.

"She's the only company I've got these days."

He and Giles locked eyes for a very tense moment, and Buffy felt herself growing nervous again. She shouldered Angel behind her as gently as she could and interjected unsmoothly, "We thought she'd come in handy, what with us needing to liberate gods from the Deeper Well, and her escaping from the Deeper Well-"

Giles took a step toward them, his expression going grimmer.

"You're doing what?" Giles asked, in a tone that still made Buffy feel like an admonished child.

She shrunk. "We're . . . well, there's a war, and we need soldiers, so we thought-"

"Did it never occur to you that those demons are imprisoned there for a reason?" he turned to Angel. "Haven't you tired of leading suicide missions?"

There wasn't a beat, and there was an explosion, a sudden shattering of glass. Buffy jumped, her heart fluttering wildly in her chest, and looked to Angel. He was standing stock-still, but he was pale and drawn, all his energy exhausted in his sentry, by his sudden outburst. He was staring at Giles, not the lamp he'd thrown, but the action, the noise, permeated the room.

"Baby," Buffy whispered.

She wanted to touch him, to bring him back to her, but she was afraid to.

"I have a lot of blood on my hands," Angel said finally. "But I'm not the only one." He looked over to where Illyria was examining the balance of a scimitar against its long frame. "Why don't you and Illyria have a chat? You have a lot to talk about."

Buffy tried to touch him now, to calm him down; he was shaking. He jerked from her touch and left the room; she could hear a door slam, and knew he'd left the house. She started after him, but then mentally played out how that would go, and decided against it.

But still. He could get hurt.

"Illyria," she implored. "Would you . . . would you go with him? Just to make sure nothing happens to him?"

Illyria's endless blue eyes regarded her for a moment. "He's a warrior."

"He's human now. I know he can fight, but . . . please. Maybe you can do some violence."

Illyria and the scimitar left after Angel.

Buffy was left alone with Giles. She turned toward her Watcher with some difficulty.

"I don't want to know what that was about," she said quietly.

"I-" he started, and she flinched.

"I don't want to know. Just . . . just don't. Whatever you two have done to each other, just-just don't do it in front of me, because I don't think I can deal with it right now, okay?" Giles hesitated, and she felt a flush of temper flare within her. "Okay?"

He nodded, looking slightly shamefaced.

"Good." She glanced at the explosion of glass littering the floor. "I'm not cleaning that up. Be the bigger person and don't leave it for Angel."

Buffy didn't want to be the kind of girl that stayed up waiting for her boyfriend to get home, but it turned out that she was absolutely that kind of girl. She vacated the study while Giles was cleaning up, but then he went to bed, which was perfect, because she was - truth be told - kind of pissed at him.

Except then his leaving left her all by herself. At first, she tried to read, but all the books were . . . well, really boring, like homework boring, and a lot of them weren't in English. So she gave that up and ended up just kind of staring into space, wanting to be mad at Angel, too. But she couldn't; she was stopped by the pain in her chest, by the constant cycling thoughts: Please let him be okay; please let him come home soon.

Finally, when her anxiety had reached the point where people start pulling their hair out, Buffy heard the front door open, and then feet on the stairs. She frowned: stupid Angel, didn't even come to see her . . . but maybe he thought she'd just gone to bed, and he was going up to her, to apologize. Less stupid Angel. She hopped up and ran to join him, but she was stopped in the foyer by Illyria.

"I-hi," Buffy said, trying to angle around the god. "Everything okay? No trouble?"

"There was regrettably little violence," Illyria said, studying the movement of its scimitar as it sliced it through the air in the skillful arcs. "But a great deal of poisoning."

Buffy's eyes widened, and she forgot trying to get around Illyria and up the stairs. "What? You let him get poisoned?"

"He poisoned himself," Illyria said simply, as though this not at all concerned it. "With a distillation of barley-"

It took Buffy a moment to understand what Illyria was saying.

"He got drunk?" she concluded finally. "You two went to a bar?"

Illyria looked annoyed, or as much as it ever did. "I did not like it. I was offered five dollars to give some hairy primitives something called a ‘lap dance,' and the owner of the establishment was displeased when I broke a stool over their faces in declining their proposal."

"But he's okay," Buffy insisted.

Illyria was infuriatingly noncommittal. "He was not injured."

Buffy started up the stairs, immensely relieved.

"But he is wounded," Illyria added. "In great pain."

Buffy stopped and turned to face the god. "What? You said he wasn't-"

"He grieves, still," Illyria said, its voice going strangely soft, sounding almost human. "This is why he poisons himself." The voice went hard again. "All of you, you all stink of your human emotions. Grief. It is disgusting, and everywhere. It clings to me, like the stench of earth after the rain. Weighing me down."

Buffy stared at the demon god for a second, a sick feeling clogging her throat, weighing down on her breastbone.

"I didn't even-I didn't even think about what he'd be doing," she confessed after a minute. "Poor Angel, I-"

Illyria's bottom-of-the-sea creature eyes roamed the foyer, like a warrior scanning the horizon for enemies.

"Weakness," it said dismissively. Its head tilted slightly, a raptor in scrutiny. The endless blue eyes scanned Buffy's face, her creased eyes, her trembling lips.

"He lost everyone," Buffy said finally, her voice tiny.

Illyria didn't react at all; there was not a single whisper of movement across its inflexible façade. "I am aware of the casualties. Gunn, the white-haired one, Wesley-" There was a brief flicker of flinch across Illyria's face when it said the Watcher's name; Buffy was sure of it, and surprise coursed through her. "-the shell-"

Buffy's brow rose. "The shell?"

"Winifred Burkle," Illyria said, its head tilting to the other side and its voice changing dramatically, going from its rigid uniformity to a delicate, feminine slight Southern lilt.

Buffy stared.

Illyria's head swiveled back to face Buffy, its eyes zeroing in on her with frightening acuity. "He has much to learn. A general's triumph in battle is not measured by bodies or lack thereof."

Illyria's words swept past Buffy's ears; she was too busy getting her mouth to work again to properly hear them.

"Illyria," she prodded. "Who is Winifred Burkle?"

"The shell," Illyria supplied immediately.

"I-"

Illyria looked down distractedly at its hands, its arms. "This body-this corpse . . . I am bound to it. Winifred Burkle."

Buffy blinked. "You mean-you stole a body? The body of one of Angel's friends?" Illyria just stared at her with its limitless vein-blue eyes, so Buffy plowed on. "Why didn't he kill you?"

"To what end?"

Buffy stuttered. "I-well . . ." She frowned. "I don't know. I guess . . . I guess it wouldn't bring back his friend, would it? I mean, you're not possessing her body, right; you're more like a vampire; his friend's dead, and you've just taken over the real estate."

Illyria didn't answer.

"But why would he pal around with you? I mean . . . it's not like he enjoys being around you, no offense. And I'm sure . . . I'm sure it even kind of hurts him, what with you looking like his dead friend." Buffy squinted, studying the human features she could make out beneath the blue, beneath the inhuman eyes. "I mean, besides the Smurf and the marble eyes, you do look pretty human."

"A king does what he must to ensure his reign and fortify his kingdom. It is the same reason he came to this house, a place-"

"-he really didn't want to be, apparently," Buffy finished, frowning. "What's the deal with that? I didn't know Angel and Giles hated each other. I mean, I knew they haven't been tight since-" Since Angel killed Jenny, she thought, becoming seventeen years old again, and flinching, "-for years, but I didn't think they'd be at each other's throats."

"Angel sought help from your friend in ridding me from the shell, and was turned away."

Buffy felt a slow drip of Novocain run all the way through her body. "What? No, that's impossible, Giles would never-" Illyria didn't respond. "-but you're not really the type to make stuff up, huh."

Buffy swallowed thickly.

"So why'd he come here, then? If he hates Giles so much?"

"A king does what he must to protect his kingdom," Illyria repeated.

Buffy smiled a little, sadly. "Angel's kingdom is gone. It was destroyed, remember? All of his friends are dead, and all that's left of his reign in LA is a huge crater in the street-"

Illyria did not look impressed by her assessment. "There are many types of kingdoms."

Buffy found Angel lying in the guest room bed, the lights low. She didn't know what to expect: she'd seen drunk guys before, but she couldn't imagine Angel running through the halls screaming with his underwear on his head, or puking his guts out, or sexually harassing sorority girls.

Turned out, he was none of the above. Angel was sprawled against the pillows looking a little more relaxed than usual, but beyond that, really quite normal. He narrowed his eyes at her indolently as she shadowed the doorway.

"You know, this whole Stacy Keach thing would be kind of a turnoff if you weren't really, really sexy," Buffy said softly.

"I guess we're lucky I'm so studly then," Angel replied.

Buffy listened closely for slur. Angel sounded - well - more relaxed, and there was a slight slope to his speech: his words were a little more stretched, like well-worked taffy, like warm honey, but he wasn't really tripping over them.

Buffy wanted to be mad, but it didn't come. She felt the beginnings of a smile tugging at her lips, even.

"So how was our outing?" she asked, coming to sit on the bed beside her lover. "Are we feeling a little better?"

Angel's eyes fixed myopically upon her. "Perfect."

Buffy ran her hand through his hair. "Liar."

He closed his eyes. "Yeah. Well. There's that."

"You could have told me about Illyria. About what happened to your friend to make her . . . you know, her. And you could have told me about why you didn't want to come to Giles's."

Angel didn't say anything.

"I know that you want to protect me, but . . . it's my job to protect you, too, you know." Angel didn't say anything, so she added, "Stupid head."

His eyes flew open, and he blinked, surprised. And then laughed.

"Love you," he whispered, and drowsily traced the contour of her face with his fingertips.

Buffy curled her body against his, kissed his alcohol-raw mouth. "I love you, too."

She spent a selfish moment just lying against his delicious warmth, her eyes wandering leisurely over his relaxed, beautiful features.

"Do you think, maybe, that we could try and cut down on the bottling?" she asked softly, letting her hands come to rest above the strong, reassuring cadence of his heart.

Angel's eyes narrowed uncertainly. "Bottling?"

"You know-the whole holding everything in until you need to break things and take demon gods to seedy bars."

Angel smiled ruefully. "It wasn't that seedy. And it was a pub-"

"Then I'm sure it was seedy."

"Also, who invited Illyria? I don't recall asking her to come along."

Buffy assumed an expression of complete innocence. "I'm sure she was just concerned for you . . ."

Angel quirked an eyebrow. "Yeah, heart as big as all outdoors. Fuzzy and cuddly, and - above all - concerned for my well-being. The first time we met, she threw me through a twenty story window."

Buffy squirmed. "Fine. I asked her to follow you-"

"Which would explain her saying, ‘The small one tasked me to ensure you were not maimed.'"

Buffy frowned. "She's the worst undercover agent ever."

"She's not really subtle. Also, she tends to stand out in a crowd, even without starting bar fights-"

"Pub fights," Buffy corrected automatically.

Angel grinned. "Okay."

Buffy studied her lover's face. "So . . . you're not mad? About the Illyria thing?"

He shrugged. "No. I'm human; you were concerned. I'm concerned for you all the time, so I . . . it's going to take you a while to get used to the idea that my being mortal doesn't mean that I'm constantly in mortal danger. I can handle myself . . . but you'll have to get comfortable with that on your own time, and I get that."

Buffy relaxed on a deeply profound level. She felt as though every muscle in her body relaxed individually, even down to the ones that controlled her inner workings: her lungs, her heart.

She smiled. "Thank you."

She kissed him softly, and slipped her hands around his.

"But . . ." She grinned. "Does this mean no make-up sex? 'Cuz I was looking forward to that."

Angel drew her close.

"Well," he said slowly. "You could take advantage of me in my current, inebriated state. We still have that."

Buffy giggled, and fell on her lover with a frenzied flurry of kisses.

She stopped short of taking full advantage, however.

"You haven't been completely honest with me," she said slowly.

She was straddling him, now, and he was still drunk . . . which all added up to the fact that she could probably get him to tell her whatever she wanted, which made her feel a little bad. But they had stuff to talk about.

Important stuff.

". . . no?" he asked finally, once he'd gotten his near-sighted fix on her.

"So, we go to the Deeper Well, and pick out the gods we want on our team," Buffy spelled out. "And then . . . we tap them with our magic wands and they're real boys and girls?"

"Ah," Angel said, beginning to look a bit sheepish. "The thing about that is-"

"That we need a human body for each one to infect?"

"See, no," Angel said reasonably. "I think we can use . . . not humans. Because, to be honest, the human body thing . . . it doesn't really work that well."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Illyria's in a human body, right? I'm guessing you've recently come to know this, and that's why I'm being passive-aggressively guilt-tripped at the moment."

Buffy blushed. "Yeah. We may have talked a little-"

"Well, Illyria's human body was, and I believe I've mentioned this before, ill-equipped to hold her whole . . . god essence. So we ended up having to significantly deplete her power before she Chernobyled, taking out the continental shelf."

"But if we put our new god playmates in demon bodies," Buffy connected. "We won't be killing anyone . . ."

"And we run less of a chance of, you know, killing anyone," Angel finished for her. "Right."

Buffy beamed. "We're smart."

Angel looked less pleased. "Let's hope so."

The next morning, Giles was still unseasonably frosty, but Angel promised to be on his best behavior, so things were more quiet than violent. Illyria poked noisily around Giles's kitchen while everyone else squeezed around his uncomfortably cozy table eating breakfast.

"Still planning on this foolishness?" he asked Buffy tightly as the two of them began to clean up. She'd sent Angel upstairs to pack, feeling the tension in the air grow like rising barometric pressure, and worrying about how Angel would respond to the coming storm.

"We sure are," she replied brightly. "We have a plan and everything. Kind of."

Giles set down the kettle he was drying and leveled a heavy look at his Slayer.

"I cannot express to you," he said seriously, "the depth of powers you are playing with; these demons have been-"

"Imprisoned for a reason," she finished by rote. "You said." She waited a beat before adding, "I thought you couldn't express to me what I was messing with."

Giles frowned. "Fine. Walk off to your foolish end, for your kamikaze lover-"

Buffy slammed both hands down on the counter so heavily that she was afraid, as the vicious noise echoed through the small kitchen, that it would break to pieces.

"I am not doing it for him," she said softly. "It needs to be done, because bad people are doing bad things, and we have to stop them any way we can. The same old story of our lives. Do you think he wants to go back to the place that thing came from, that thing that killed his friend?" Buffy nodded to Illyria as she said this, but the demon god did not react at all. "He's going because it's the right thing to do, because we help people. And because I asked him." She raked her hands through her hair. She felt like she was fragmenting, like the stress of having to sieve out only the pertinent information - and not just scream out everything she was feeling - was going to break her apart. "Help us or don't, Giles, but I can't afford to have you in my way."

Giles just looked at her, his face slack and staring. It struck her, suddenly, how old he was, how old and mortal.

Behind them, Buffy heard Angel come off the stairs with their luggage. She forced herself to smile and walked past Giles's limp visage to greet him.

Giles drove them to the Deeper Well. Buffy almost insisted that it wasn't necessary, that she could just will them there and it'd take seconds, but then she realized that this was him showing his reluctant support, and kept her mouth shut for the two hour car ride.

Or, well, she kept it shut on that subject. Illyria got bored just sitting in one place, so Buffy taught it a car game to keep it occupied. Angel brought a book, but fell asleep after only a few pages; he really wasn't that hungover, but Buffy had still gotten him up pretty early for someone in his condition. It was his own fault, though, Buffy reasoned, determined not to feel bad. Angel knew they had work to do; he should have known better than to go pubbing, grieving or no.

"So . . . things are . . . they're pretty well with him, are they?" Giles asked cautiously.

Buffy took Angel's book from him and set it awkwardly in her lap. It felt so heavy, so . . . substantial. She knew that he liked that about books: their feel, their smell. It just made her think of how many tiny words there were to get through.

"Yeah," she said. "They're great. I mean, it'll be tons better when there isn't an army of gods trying to kidnap and/or kill us, but just the me-and-Angel part? Is great."

Giles sent her a worried look that she was sure addressed the first half of that sentence, and she filled him in on everything she could think of: the goddess in the bookstore, Angel's torture, everything Sila had told her, why they were going to the Deeper Well.

"It's been a busy couple weeks," she finished.

He just stared at her again, so long that she was starting to get a little nervous about him being behind the wheel.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you," Giles said finally. "I may not have known how to advise you, but I should at least have been-"

"It's okay," Buffy said softly. "Really." She shifted uncomfortably, catching Angel's reflection in the rearview mirror. "I mean . . . I guess we all have stuff to apologize for, but . . . but I think the important thing is what we deal with the future, right, not the bad stuff we did in the past."

The Watcher gave her a surprised look. "Been doing some growing up?"

"Well, I try. Every once in a while, I'm due a big, profound thought."

Buffy wouldn't have imagined it, but Illyria was distinctly nervous the closer they got to the Deeper Well. It made sense, she guessed; no one loves their prison.

Or their grave.

When the directions said they were getting close - and, accordingly, got really tricky - Buffy woke Angel up, and he proceeded to guide them the rest of the way with concise, drowsy instructions.

Illyria started getting cagier in the manner of a cat sitting beside a rocking chair, its tail tapping anxiously on the ground. Buffy half expected her to start clawing at the windows.

"Pull over," Angel said eventually, as they drove past more misty glen.

Buffy and Giles exchanged glances.

". . . because you're going to be sick?" Buffy hazarded.

"Because this is it," Angel answered, unbuckling his seatbelt.

Buffy sighed. She was afraid of that.

Giles glided the car to the side of the road, despite the fact that they hadn't seen another living soul for over an hour, and the four of them got out of the car and stepped into the tall, wet grass.

"This looks," Buffy started, but then couldn't think of anything that didn't sound stupid.

"What were you expecting?" Angel asked gently.

"A visitor's center," she answered promptly. "With a big sign: ‘Welcome to the Deeper Well.' And maybe t-shirts and balloons."

He smiled indulgently, took her hand, and started off into the valley. Behind her, she could hear Giles's careful, British gait and the indelicate plodding of the godking that was almost a clearing of land upsetting the grass and heather.

"How far?" Buffy asked. After being cooped up in the car so long, a little longer to wait shouldn't have been anything, but it was. She was over it.

"Not very," Angel answered, scanning the trees coming into his view. "Just a little way."

"Is there a visitor's center?" she asked.

"Buffy . . ."

"I just meant . . . how do we get in?"

"Oh. There's a door."

"A door? A door to a hole in the world?"

"Ironically, yes." He stopped walking. "And there it is."

Buffy looked around, expectant . . . and then baffled. "I don't see it."

Angel pointed, and Buffy squinted.

"You mean that huge, knotty tree of doom?"

Angel swallowed his laugh. "I'm afraid so."

"It looks like the entrance to Christmasland," she quipped.

It was just a joke, but suddenly Angel's hand around hers was crushing, and she looked up to his face, confused, and his jaw was clenched so tight that his skin was blanched.

"Angel-"

"That's the door," he repeated, his voice a dead whisper.

"What-"

He let go of her hand and walked toward it.

"There were guardians, last time," he said with the quiet detachment of someone retracing their steps. "But we took them out, and . . . and the Keeper of the Well, he's dead, too, so . . ."

He laid his hand upon the door, and nothing happened.

"So how do we get in?" Giles concluded.

Angel looked back at Illyria, but if she had any ideas, she wasn't sharing them.

Buffy laughed. "Come on! I'm a god. Harsh security is nothing."

Angel looked at her a moment before he figured out what she was talking about.

"Buffy, no-"

"I know it's not your favorite way to travel, but apparently, in this instance, it's necessary. All right, everybody: seatbelts, please."

Angel really didn't like traveling by will; he closed his eyes until it was over. Buffy wondered if he did that on rollercoasters. She should take him on a rollercoaster . . . focus, Buffy . . .

Buffy laid her hand on Angel's arm, and he opened his eyes and let out the breath he'd been holding.

"You took us . . . you took us all the way inside . . ."

He looked a little concerned, and a flag of worry spiked through Buffy.

"Is it okay?" Buffy asked. They were standing on a rope bridge overlooking a huge precipice; was this going to be some Harrison Ford and the Temple of Doom thing?

"It's fine," Angel said quietly, going to the edge of the bridge and looking over. He neither looked nor sounded as though it was fine, however. "I just . . . I didn't expect you to take us all the way in . . ."

Buffy joined him at the edge and peered over. Wow. It just went down and down and down . . .

"Wow," she murmured. "How far . . . ?"

"It goes all the way," he said, slipping a protective arm around her shoulders.

She looked up at him. "Kind of like us, huh?"

The corner of his mouth quirked. "Something like that."

She looked back into the abyss, at the innumerable dusky jewels dotting the hole in the world that were, in reality, coffins.

"So . . . all of these . . . they're all dead demon gods? Ripe for the pickin'?"

"Yes."

"Well . . . how do we choose? How do we know who's going to be a good guy on our team, and who'll go Godzillaing all over the place?"

Angel turned back to Illyria and smiled. "That's why we brought in an outside consultant with experience in the field."

Over the next several hours, Buffy willed the gods Illyria hand-selected back to Giles's. It was heavy work, not only literally: there was a lot of magic working in the Well, and the effort took a lot out of her. She was worried about contamination, and also time was not on their side, so while she was doing this, Angel left to start rounding up vamps to infect. Fun, fun work. She worried about him doing it as human, but he told her firmly that he knew what he was doing, and if, at any point, he felt like he didn't, he was not an idiot, and he'd come home. She found that logic difficult to argue with, so she let him go.

With the first batch of sarcophagi, Buffy had willed Giles back to his flat to start getting his basement ready for the next few days of turning vamps into demon god hosts, and she found herself occasionally wishing she was there to see the look on his face when Angel brought really unhappy captive demons into the basement he was tidying up. As it turned out, she didn't get there into hours later, when the vampires were all tied down to cots Giles had leftover from the Potential Slayer Invasion, and both he and Angel were about as exhausted as she was, although they made pretty big with the fussing over her and bringing her tea. Boys. It was good to have boys.

"Angel, tell me a story."

"Do you want me to read to you? I'll get Charlotte's Web-"

"No, not that kind of story."

Buffy closed her eyes. If she tried, not incredibly hard, lying here in the comfortable hollow of Angel's shoulder, she could just fade away into his warmth and the precious dual cadences of his breath and pulse, and not hear the noise beyond this room: the demons being taken over by long-dead gods.

Th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. What a pretty noise.

"Tell me . . . tell me about what happens next. The end."

"Oh," Angel's deep voice rumbled through the cave of his chest, all around her. "That kind of story."

He spent a moment marinating, petting her hair. She didn't mind.

"Well-"

"You have to start with ‘Once Upon a Time,'" she insisted. "That's how all stories are supposed to start."

"But this is the end," he reasoned.

She opened her eyes, frowning. "It is?"

He fumbled over his words. "But-you asked for . . ." He sighed. "Never mind. Okay. Once upon a time-"

"There was a princess," Buffy persisted.

Angel eyed her. "Which one of us is telling this story?"

"You," she said in almost-a-whine. "I'm just making sure you get it right."

"Uh-huh. Okay. Once upon a time, there was a princess-"

"Much better."

Angel continued to eye her skeptically, but continued his story, as well. "-who had, let's say, a particular talent for getting herself into trouble."

"Hey!"

"Luckily for her, she also had a prince-" His hands tightened around her waist, and she closed her eyes and concentrated on the deep reverberations of his voice all around her, ignoring his small jabs at her person. "-who was pretty content to spend his life keeping her out of trouble."

"I like this prince character," she said dreamily. "Does he have a nude scene?"

She earned a pinch on the apple of her bottom for her quip and squealed, curling against her lover. Angel laughed and only held her writhing body tighter.

"The princess's proclivity for messes nearly got them both killed more than once," Angel continued once Buffy had settled back down, "but they always found their way out, because-"

"Because they're heroes?" Buffy guessed, looking up at him.

"Because that's what they do," Angel replied softly.

"Oh," Buffy said agreeably, relaxed back down into his comfortable embrace. "That was my second guess."

Angel used one of his hands to tip up her chin. Her heart fluttered giddily: he was going to kiss her. But he didn't; for a long moment, he just looked at her, his dark eyes traveling her face.

"I love you," he said quietly.

"I-" she started, but then his mouth fell upon hers, and she couldn't finish answering him.

She didn't need to. He knew. Of course he knew.

Buffy closed her eyes and leaned into the kiss, got lost in the taste of Angel, the feel of him. Not so very far away, two-dozen vampires writhed in agony, shaking their cots against the cement floor, as their bodies were hollowed out into armor for her army.

But she couldn't hear it. In his arms, the whole world faded away.

"And they lived happily ever after," she whispered as he pulled away, thirsty for air.

Angel laughed against her flushed face.

"Didn't I end properly? Or do all stories have to end like that . . . ?"

"We'll end our story however we want," she assured him, and pulled him back down for another kiss.

la fine

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Author's Notes:
Rating: NC 17
Summary: A really weird morning after leads Buffy into a world where her wildest dreams can come true, until - as usual - it turns out that things are not always as they seem.
Spoilers: Post “Chosen” and “Not Fade Away.”
Disclaimer: Everyone knows what Joss Whedon owns, and that I’m not him. However, I should also mention that some parts of this story owe something to the very brilliant and often under-appreciated Neil Gaiman and his wonderful book American Gods. My story, “Gods and Monsters,” is not any manner of fanfiction for Neil’s story, nor does it borrow from the plot; however it is, on (brief) occasion - I realized this about twenty pages in - a tiny bit derivative, and for this I owe credit. Additionally, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to read this novel immediately if you have not already done so; it is so good it makes me ache. My model for Dawn’s school was L'Università Tor Vergata in Rome. If you want to know whom the (very ill-defined, with great liberties taken very often) models for the gods are, there is another author’s note at the conclusion of the story. Also (I do go on, don't I) thanks to Dave for betaing this monster, and putting up with me. You're a champ, hon.
Dione: Dione is patterned - again, extremely loosely over the Greek God Dionysus (the Roman Bacchus), the god of wine, ecstasy, and madness.
the goddess in the bookstore: The goddess Buffy meets in Barnes and Noble is patterned after Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, lust, beauty, and sexuality.
Dove: Dove is patterned after Peitho, a Greek goddess who acts a handmaiden to Aphrodite. She is the goddess of persuasion, seduction, charming speech, and forceful sexual acts, including rape. Her attributes include a ball of binding twine and the white dove, which is where her name comes from, since there’s really no way to pretty up “Peitho,” and her Roman name, Suadela, is just as awkward.
Camalotz: I didn’t bother making much up with the torturers, since they’re not common-circulation gods. Camalotz is a lower god of the Mayan pantheon. His name means “Sudden-Bloodletter,” and he “aided in the destruction of the Second Creation, by beheading most of the Tsabol-People who inhabited that world.”
Eris: Eris (the Roman Discordia) is the Greek goddess of strife and chaos.

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